Advocates question speedy process of new immigration policy along border
WESLACO – A federal immigration program is taking migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico and sending them to Guatemala under the Guatemala Asylum Cooperative Agreement, or GACA. Advocates for migrants are concerned with the speed of the process. Taking them out of the program is proving challenging for attorneys, but a group in the Rio Grande Valley believes they've seen the first successful case.
Richard Newman, Projects Attorney for San Antonio Region Justice for Our Neighbors, recently represented clients who were placed under the program. It was announced in the Federal Registry in late Nov. 2019. Newman said its implementation in the Valley began soon after. "We didn't realize that the Guatemala Asylum Cooperative Agreement was being rolled out in the Valley until we were contacted by other non-profits and other attorneys," he said.
According to the federal registry entry, GACA is part of the safe third-country agreements with the Central American Countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The way it works is by barring a new arriving migrant from applying for asylum in the U.S. and sending them to a country that will provide access to a "full and fair" procedure for determining their claim. Migrants who enter the U.S. at the port of entry or through it can be placed in this program.
Newman says this program violates the migrant's right to due process.
"Under this GACA, they are arrested and placed in the tents in Donna, Texas. They're not given access to an attorney. They never see a judge. They're never given a bond. They are simply processed as fast as possible. They're fingerprinted. Their information is taken and they're sent to Guatemala," Newman explained.
Before GACA, thousands were being placed in the Migrant Protection Protocol – a program that's drawn criticism for sending migrants back to Mexico to await their asylum hearings in the U.S. Now, there are new outcries. "So, people that are on the GACA program would love to be in the MPP program."
Recently, two sets of parents, a teenage mom and her child and a disabled man and his son, were placed in the program while they were in the Valley.
Newman filed a lawsuit against the federal government to go before a judge and request they be extracted from the program. Before the paperwork reached the judge, the man and his son were sent to Guatemala. The mom and her child were to suffer the same fate. That didn't happen.
"It's a miracle that they were able to still be here, because Border Patrol had them slotted to fly out the day before our hearing. But for weather, inclement weather prevented the plane from taking off, from what I understand," said Newman.
The government decided to take the mom and child off GACA, but not due to a judge's order. Both were placed in ICE detention facilities. Right now, that's the best outcome, says Newman. "You're going to get a fair shot in court where you can explain your asylum case, and possibly be granted asylum. That's all we're asking for, is a fair opportunity to be granted asylum."
Other immigrant advocates sued the U.S. for this policy at the beginning of the year, and it's still working its way through the federal courts.
On Thursday, during a committee hearing, CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan said the U.S. has repatriated about 1,000 people under these new agreements.
At last check, the mother and child were released from federal detention on their own recognizance. They are now living with family in the U.S. and awaiting the outcome of their asylum claim, according to Newman.