SAN DIEGO – The head of the Department of Homeland Security ordered border agents to stop asylum-seekers from stepping on U.S. soil at official crossings with Mexico in 2018, undercutting public statements at the time that they were welcome to do so, according to a government watchdog report published Friday.
The DHS inspector general also found those trying to seek asylum at four official crossings were removed to Mexico before having a chance to seek protection from persecution back home, contrary to U.S. immigration law. The internal watchdog said U.S. Customs and Border Protection had unused detention space at two crossings that could have been used to process asylum-seekers.
The 37-page report paints a picture starkly at odds with previous accounts of how the practice of making people wait in Mexico was introduced two years ago amid an unprecedented surge of people seeking asylum, many of them Central American families. U.S. authorities have said repeatedly that processing constraints were the sole reason for making people wait in Mexico.
The practice — one of many measures President Donald Trump has implemented to limit asylum — has been on hold since March, when the administration temporarily suspended asylum altogether, using the coronavirus to invoke special powers under a public health law.
Kirstjen Nielsen, who as DHS secretary in 2018 was dealing with a crisis over the administration's decision to separate families at the border, repeatedly urged asylum-seekers to go to ports of entry, instead of entering the country illegally between official crossings. At the time, CBP was turning away people at official crossings, though Nielsen disputed those reports.
Chad Wolf, her chief of staff and now acting secretary, acted on Nielsen's May 24, 2018, request to ask CBP how many asylum-seekers would likely be turned away each day if the agency limited processing at the border, a practice known as “metering.” She was told that 650 people daily could be denied entry if 200 officers were assigned to the task.
On June 5, Nielsen signed an order putting the plan in effect, the report says.
“(While) DHS leadership urged asylum seekers to present themselves at ports of entry, the agency took deliberate steps to limit the number of undocumented aliens who could be processed each day at Southwest Border land ports of entry,” the report says.
Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment and neither did Nielsen, who was ousted last year in a broad purge of senior department officials. CBP referred the AP to its written responses in the report.
The inspector general says that CBP, without public notice, stopped processing asylum-seekers at seven of 24 southern border crossings, all of them in the San Diego and Laredo, Texas, field offices. Officers at the Tecate, California, crossing questioned the legality of the order and refused to participate.
CBP, in its written response to recommendations, rejected the inspector general's proposal to resume processing at the seven crossings or publicly announce that it won't.
Agents at four border crossings — three in the San Diego field office and one in Nogales, Arizona — turned back asylum-seekers who were on U.S. soil but had not yet cleared inspection. The inspector general said that practice was inconsistent with U.S. law and Homeland Security policy.
The inspector general also challenged CBP's claim that it reached its processing capacity, saying that visits to Arizona crossings in Nogales and San Luis showed otherwise. The San Luis port had the capacity to detain 48 people but was holding only five.
CBP said the inspector general's findings on capacity reflect “a fundamental misunderstanding." It said, for example, that it can't mix men with an unaccompanied child.
Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden calls metering a “disastrous policy” on his website.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.