SAN DIEGO, CA – A Salvadoran woman seeking asylum in the United States spends her days sequestered in her cousin's cramped house in Mexico, too scared to leave after being savagely beaten three weeks ago when strolling back from a convenience store. The attack came after she spent four months in captivity, kidnapped into prostitution on her journey through Mexico.
The woman is one of 55,000 migrants who have been returned to Mexico by the Trump administration to wait for their cases to wind through the backlogged immigration courts, and her situation offers a glimpse into some of the problems with the program.
Critics say it denies asylum seekers fair and humane treatment, largely by forcing them to wait in a country plagued by large pockets of drug-fueled violence as demonstrated this week by the slaughter near the U.S. border of six children and three women, all U.S. citizens living in Mexico.
The Trump administration insists that the program is a safe alternative done in collaboration with the government of Mexico, even as the president is vowing to wage war on drug cartels that are a dominant presence in the border cities where migrants are being forced to wait. The Department of Homeland Security said in a report last week that it was "an indispensable tool in addressing the ongoing crisis at the southern border and restoring integrity to the immigration system."
As he heard the case last week of the immigrant from El Salvador, immigration Judge Lee O'Connor made no secret of his disdain for the program.
The judge said she was ineligible for the program because, in his view, the law only allows it for people who present themselves at official border crossings, not for immigrants like her who enter illegally.
But the U.S. still sent her back to Mexico with a notice that her next court date was Dec. 16, even though her case was terminated by the judge.
Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on the woman's case.
At the woman's hearing last week, a Honduran infant's whimpers rose to a bellowing cry moments before the black-robed judge took his seat. "Silence in the courtroom!" he ordered, noting the child was "screaming at the top of his lungs." A guard came to escort the child and his mother to the hallway.
The judge questioned the two attorneys who represented asylum seekers about how long it took to visit clients in Mexico, noting the infamously long waits to cross the border. "Hours," he marveled, almost to himself.
The Honduran mother returned after her child was placated, but the judge wasn't done scolding them.
"Ma'am, that's not a toy," he said when the boy banged on audio equipment at her table. "Don't let your child destroy our equipment."
The judge saved his harshest words for the government attorney after saying he would terminate proceedings for the family because they crossed the border illegally. He reached the same conclusion on the El Salvador woman's case and others.
O'Connor erupted at the government lawyer as the discussion turned more contentious, telling her that he took an oath to uphold U.S. laws, "not to acquiesce when they are flagrantly violated."