Migrants who want to seek asylum in the U.S. wait outside the San Ysidro PedWest Entry to have their numbers call out. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Rapidly changing policies at the border under the Trump administration leave pretty much everyone involved — from immigration judges to asylum-seekers to people just trying to follow border news — with whiplash.

Every new policy or practice means a new game of figuring out how life actually changes on the ground.

Such has been the case with the Migration Protection Protocols, or the so-called Remain in Mexico program, which requires that Central Americans who seek refuge at the U.S.-Mexico border await their asylum proceedings in Mexico.

The program went into effect nearly eight months ago, piloted at San Diego’s border. The program has since expanded to other parts of the border, and more than 47,000 people have been returned to Mexico under the program.

I recently wrote about a Guatemalan woman, Julia, who is one of only a handful of people we know of so far who has won her case under the program.

But more than 24 hours of confusion followed Julia’s win. Instead of being released, immigration officials took Julia into custody. Her attorney, Nanya Thompson, couldn’t locate her until the day after her hearing.

Thompson’s calls were shuffled between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol. Thompson, Julia’s family members and I were all given different information regarding what had happened to her and what the process should have dictated.

Eventually Thompson found out that she had been taken into Border Patrol custody. She was released roughly two days after her hearing.

Following the publication of my story, Border Patrol reached out to say what happened to Julia wasn’t chaotic at all. Immigration judges and attorneys may not have known where she was, but Border Patrol was doing everything by the book, an official insisted.

Here’s the statement sent to me by Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeff Stephenson in San Diego:

All aliens that were apprehended by the Border Patrol, and that are part of the MPP program, are returned to Border Patrol Stations following their hearing. When a decision is made, whether it is approval of asylum or denial, the alien is returned to the originating Border Patrol Station for disposition. In the case of approval, they are processed for release through [Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Enforcement and Removal Operations]. In the case of denial, they are processed through normal means via ICE/ERO. This process is to ensure that the alien can be reached in the United States and that all the necessary forms are served and notifications made (in cases where they are released).

Let me break that down into English.

The delay in Julia’s release — and in other cases — was the result of the paperwork. It needs to be filled out and reviewed by the right agency within the Department of Homeland Security. But the right agency overseeing a migrant depends on where the migrant happens to be. In other words, the delay was a matter of bureaucracy.

Julia and her son had originally been apprehended by Border Patrol agents. They crossed into the United States illegally, requested asylum and were then returned to Mexico. So after she won her case, she was returned to Border Patrol. Those who requested asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry would be returned to the port of entry, which is manned by the CBP Office of Field Operations.

When someone becomes a part of the Migrant Protection Protocols at the border, they fall under the jurisdiction of Customs and Border Protection, which includes both Border Patrol and the CBP Office of Field Operations. Once they are released into the country, they are under the purview of ICE.

Even though Julia and a handful of others won their asylum cases, the government reserved its right to appeal. That means that ICE still needs to know where they’ll be, in case they lose their appeal or need to be removed from the country for another reason.

But at that point, the migrant is no longer Border Patrol’s concern. They become ICE’s responsibility. Sometimes that can take a few hours, but sometimes, like in Julia’s case, that can take days.

Thompson expressed dismay at how difficult it was to simply find out what had happened to her client after she won her case. If everything had been done by the book, she told me, why did it take 24 hours and multiple phone calls to just figure out where Julia was?

“I had to call and speak to like three or four officers before anyone knew what was going on or what to do,” she said via text.

More Border News

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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