USFirst person from 'Remain in Mexico' to win asylum released into US after day in detention
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SAN DIEGO — The first person from the “Remain in Mexico” program to win asylum has been released into the U.S. after the government considered sending him back to Tijuana.
The man, a 30-year-old from Honduras known as Alec, spent nearly 24 hours in custody following his asylum win on Tuesday. His attorney, along with Alliance San Diego and local faith leaders, publicized the situation early Wednesday.
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The government had said in court that it might appeal the judge’s decision in Alec’s case. Though he’s been released, it’s not yet clear whether the government intends to appeal.
Many were concerned that if the man were returned to Mexico after proving that he deserved asylum, it would create an inhumane precedent for the program and crush the hopes of those whose cases are still pending.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
Alliance San Diego has already found a local community member willing to house Alec and help him transition to his new life in the United States.
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The program that kept Alec in Tijuana, known officially as Migrant Protection Protocols and widely as “Remain in Mexico,” began sending certain asylum-seekers back to Mexico in January to wait for their claims to be processed in immigration court. Almost 20,000 people have been returned under the program as of July 11, according to Mexican immigration officials.
According to recently released data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University, most court cases flagged as MPP are still pending. As of the end of June, no one in the program had won asylum.
Alec, the first from the program nationwide to win his case, was among the lucky few in the program who managed to find an attorney to help him. Just over 1% of those in “Remain in Mexico” have managed to get lawyers to represent them, according to a TRAC data analysis.
Robyn Barnard of Human Rights First didn’t hear from Alec for nearly 24 hours after he was taken away in custody late Tuesday afternoon from the immigration courtroom. Alec didn’t have access to his phone while in custody.
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“I’m very scared for him, and I’m sure he’s very confused,” Barnard said at a noon press conference Wednesday.
Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego, a local nonprofit that had arranged for a sponsor for the man, said this is a test case that shows what the Trump administration will do when someone follows all of its rules and overcomes all of the challenges that it has put in place for asylum-seekers.
“What they do here is what they’ll do everywhere else, so it matters what they do here,” Guerrero said.
Alec was granted asylum based on religious grounds. He was an Evangelical Christian leader in his community and was targeted and persecuted by the MS-13 gang.
Through his work, he converted several gang members who decided to follow their new faith and leave their violent lives behind. The gang killed them for leaving, Barnard said, and came after Alec.
Judge Rico Bartolomei, who is an assistant chief immigration judge, found that the Honduran government is unable and unwilling to protect Alec from that persecution, Barnard said. For Central Americans fleeing gang violence, proving that element under asylum law is difficult but necessary to win protection.
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Bartolomei also ordered that Alec be admitted to the United States.
Then, according to Barnard, the judge turned to the attorney representing DHS in the case and asked whether she wanted to consider appealing his decision. She said yes.
Bartolomei asked what would happen to Alec in the meantime.
The DHS attorney told Bartolomei that Alec would remain in DHS custody and “may be returned to Mexico,” Barnard said.
The government has 30 days from the judge’s order to decide whether to appeal. If the government decides to send the case to the Board of Immigration Appeals, the final outcome could take years.
Bartolomei reiterated his order that Alec be allowed into the United States. He asked Barnard for her response.
Barnard said she gave a brief plea, emphasizing that Alec had followed U.S. law throughout the process, that he had already waited six months in Tijuana and that a local community member had already agreed to provide him housing. She promised to personally ensure that he follow any and all conditions put on him by DHS if he were released.
The DHS attorney said it wasn’t up to her, Barnard recalled. Alec would have to go back.
“He was very emotional,” Barnard said Wednesday morning. “We had just had this wonderful moment of winning his protection after months of uncertainty. To say, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. They’re putting you back in that freezing cell,’ — he was very upset.”
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“He’s been found to be a credible refugee and not a danger to the community,” Barnard added. “There’s no reason for him to have to be in that cell right now.”
Barnard said the government’s actions raise questions about the real reason for the Remain in Mexico program.
“It just seems that the purpose isn’t to ensure that only genuine refugees are coming in,” Barnard said. “The purpose is to make people give up — give up their claims and leave rather than wait for their day in court. What other reason is there at this point to send him back to Mexico after a judge has found that he is not lying, that he is a credible witness?”
Barnard, along with members of Alliance San Diego and faith leaders, held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to call for Alec’s release.
“This is a matter of justice,” said Rev. J. Lee Hill Jr. of the United Church of Christ.
Hill said that many of the people who were involved in the beginnings of the United States had themselves fled religious persecution, and he said that the country has an obligation to help those who are fleeing similar harm.
A few hours later, Alec was released from the port of entry and on his way to rejoin his attorney in downtown San Diego.
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