The Trump administration's policy of returning asylum seekers to Mexico has come to El Paso

The Department of Homeland Security confirmed that its Migration Protection Protocols, also called “remain in Mexico,” now includes the El Paso port of entry.

The border fence between El Paso and Juarez on Feb. 10, 2019.
The border fence between El Paso and Juarez on Feb. 10, 2019.  Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

El PASO — Some asylum-seeking migrants here will be sent back to Mexico soon under an expanded policy that requires refugees to wait on the other side of the Rio Grande until their hearings before an American immigration judge.

The Department of Homeland Security confirmed that the Migration Protection Protocols, also known as “remain in Mexico,” was expanded to include the El Paso port of entry on Tuesday. An official said people will be sent across the border to the Mexican state of Chihuahua starting later this week.

The program began at California’s San Ysidro Port of Entry in January and was immediately met with outrage from immigrant rights groups and attorneys who said migrants could be in danger in violent Mexican cities and that being in Mexico makes communicating with their U.S.-based attorneys more challenging.

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"Given the overwhelming barriers to legal representation affected individuals will face, as well as the difficulties in obtaining documentation critical to supporting their claims, whether or not a person is forced to remain in Mexico could mean the difference between life and death," Benjamin Johnson, the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said when the plan was first announced.

The rollout of the program in El Paso comes just days before a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Center for Gender and Refugee Studies will be argued in a California federal court. The groups are seeking an immediate injunction to halt the program and claim it violates the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and international human rights protocols not to return people to dangerous countries.

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U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said in a statement Wednesday she will introduce legislation to end the policy.

“With this shameful policy, the administration is endangering lives, abandoning its obligation to bring forward smart solutions for our broken immigration system, and imposing on another country the task of solving our immigration challenges,” she said.

The policy doesn’t apply to unaccompanied minor children or other undocumented individuals in expedited removal proceedings, according to a DHS fact sheet about the program.

Other migrants from “vulnerable populations” may be also be excluded from the program on a “case-by-case basis” the DHS fact sheet said.