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Asylum seekers forced to remain in Mexico face daily threat of violence

According to the U.S. Immigration Policy Center, one in four asylum seekers forced by the Trump administration to remain in Mexico encounters violence there. Yamiche Alcindor looks at the risks they face as they wait out their cases in places sometimes more dangerous than those they fled.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In our second focus on immigration tonight, a new study shows that one in four legal asylum seekers who were forced to remain in Mexico while their cases are considered have been threatened with physical violence.

    That is according to the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at University of California, San Diego.

    Our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, traveled to Mexico to see firsthand the impact the Trump administration's asylum policy is having on thousands of migrants applying for protection.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In a two-room shack in Mexico, Delmary Arias is hoping for healing and dreaming of a safer future. She and her 9-year-old daughter, Allison, are trying to seek asylum in the United States, but the process has been deeply traumatic.

    The two fled El Salvador and now live with fellow asylum seekers. They are navigating an increasingly difficult U.S. immigration system.

  • Delmary Arias (through translator):

    I left because my ex-partner was threatening me. He threatened to kill me. And my daughter was at risk because she had been touching her. I made this decision and fled for the U.S.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In May, they traveled by bus through dangerous parts of Central America and Mexico. They made it to Tijuana eight days later, and then crossed into the United States, where they applied for asylum.

  • Delmary Arias (through translator):

    I jumped the fence and turned myself in. They detained us, then they sent us to Mexico.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Like tens of thousands of other migrants, she was forced to return to Mexico as part of the Trump administration's migrant protection protocols program.

    Asylum seekers say it offers no protection, since they are sent to wait out their cases in cities that even the State Department considers some of the most dangerous in the world. Often, these are places where drug cartels and violent gangs prey on vulnerable migrants.

    That's what happened to Arias. She and her daughter were kidnapped while running errands in Tijuana. desperate to survive, she gave her abductors her family's phone number.

  • Delmary Arias (through translator):

    They told them, if they didn't pay $10,000, they were going to start cutting off our body parts, beginning with my daughter. When my family said no, they hit me because they thought I was lying.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    She was freed after two days by giving one of the kidnappers all of her belongings and money that she had in her purse, a little less than $200.

  • Delmary Arias (through translator):

    Thank God they let my daughter and me go, and they didn't hurt us. It's something traumatic and psychological. I can't get over it. I don't go out anywhere. I stay inside.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    You fled violence in one country and then experienced it in another. What is that like?

  • Delmary Arias (through translator):

    Psychologically, it really impacts you, because I arrived fleeing a country, and they put me in a country even worse than El Salvador. I don't have any protection. I thought I would have protection in the U.S., that it would give me support.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    We questioned U.S. Customs and Border Protection acting Commissioner Mark Morgan about whether the program was exposing asylum seekers to unnecessary risk.

  • Mark Morgan:

    We're working with the government in Mexico. They have promised, right, they have committed that they will do everything they can to provide adequate protection and shelter for those individuals waiting in Mexico under the MPP program.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Since launching the program in January, the administration has sent roughly 60,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico.

    According to a new report by the advocacy group Human Rights First, there have been more than 630 violent crimes against migrants who are forced back to Mexico. Conditions have been so bad that migrants have blocked bridges on the border and held protests against the Trump policy.

    And there are Mexican officials to deal with, too. An asylum seeker we interviewed in Southern Mexico said Mexican immigration authorities blocked her from returning to the U.S. for a hearing.

  • Nora Martinez (through translator):

    They detained us and told us our visas wasn't valid. We went to immigration, and they said what Mexico wanted was to get rid of people. They destroyed our visas, and they said, if we tried to travel again, they would detain us again.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Mexican immigration officials didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview.

  • President Donald Trump:

    This wall can't be climbed. It's just very, very hard.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Trump rose to power on promises to build a wall on the southern border, a wall that would theoretically keep some people out, but not those who apply for asylum. That's where the new policy comes in.

  • Kelly Overton:

    It's an administrative wall. It's a bureaucratic wall. It denies people the ability to legally seek asylum.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Kelly Overton Heads Border Kindness, a nonprofit that provides support for migrants.

  • Kelly Overton:

    When they do seek asylum, when they present themselves at a point of entry, they almost immediately or within days are sent back to Mexico to wait for hearings.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    We visited a shelter in Mexicali, near the U.S. border, that the organization helps fund. Many of the people we met are caught in a loop, shuttled back and forth over the border.

  • Kelly Overton:

    And then this dance begins, this dance of hearings and court dates and such, in different locations far away, that basically allows the United States to outwait these people, to stall.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Parents told us conditions are extremely stressful. A family of six we met couldn't tolerate life in a shelter. They say they now rent a small room from a Mexican woman.

    But Overton says he has seen them sleeping on the streets. This is where the mother, Hilda Agustin, spends much of her time, on the border selling snacks to people headed to the place she wants to go to most, the U.S. She is from a small indigenous village in Guatemala. Both she and her husband speak a Mayan dialect and struggle to communicate in Spanish.

    Like many we spoke to, Agustin is fleeing violence.

  • Hilda Agustin (through translator):

    I was scared for my kids. My oldest was shaking with fear. These bad men came into our home asking for money. They threatened to kill my husband. This went on for a year, them threatening us. They told me, if we didn't give them money, they would kill us.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Agustin and her family traveled by bus from Guatemala. They turned themselves in when they arrived at the U.S. border and applied for asylum. When they were sent back to Mexico, they faced more threats.

  • Hilda Agustin (through translator):

    A man here said they were going to take my kids, they were going to kidnap them. So I never leave them alone, and my husband helps watch them.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The day after we met her, Agustin and other migrants took an early bus to make it back to their next hearing in San Diego more than 120 miles away.

    We're about two hours from San Diego on our way to Tijuana. People take chartered bus routes like this, hoping it will be safer than other routes where people have been attacked and even kidnapped.

    The next day's hearing was all Agustin could think about.

  • Hilda Agustin (through translator):

    I'm worried about the answer the judge will decide. We're nervous and afraid to talk to the judge again. It's very difficult to travel back and forth with the kids, and take the bus again.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Most of the passengers were returning to San Diego for their asylum hearings, too.

    After spending a night in a Mexican hotel paid for by a nonprofit, the migrants we followed went to the border. They have to cross on foot and wait for U.S. immigration authorities to take them to their hearings.

    Armed guards direct them on and off of buses with metal screens and bars. We couldn't film inside the court, but we were able to sit in Agustin's hearing. The judge said her application was still incomplete and suggested she get legal help.

    Only about 1 percent of those seeking asylum have legal representation. The U.S. doesn't offer free legal assistance to asylum seekers. Advocates say most migrants can't afford to hire an attorney. They also say many attorneys who might help for free are too scared to travel to dangerous parts of Mexico where migrants wait out their cases.

    According to an ACLU federal lawsuit, the Trump administration is impeding asylum seekers from exercising their right to counsel. The families we have been following have been told they have to come back for yet more hearings in January.

    This means they will be sent back to Mexico yet again. Some will likely give up. One of the most vulnerable people we met, kidnapping victim Delmary Arias, was actually granted asylum. She is now living in the Washington, D.C. area.

    Activists and immigration lawyers say she is a rare case, even if she doesn't feel particularly lucky.

  • Delmary Arias (through translator):

    Only those who have experienced it know what someone suffers here with their children.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor on the U.S.-Mexico border.

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