For weeks, President Donald Trump has expressed alarm about a caravan of Central American migrants heading for the United States and vowed to keep them out. But on Tuesday, U.S. officials allowed a second group of the asylum seekers across the border, their fate now in the hands of immigration officials and judges.
By Tuesday morning, 14 of the 150 migrants had been escorted to the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego to begin their asylum proceedings – what appeared to be a blow to Pres. Trump’s stern pledge to prevent them from reaching American soil. But the president’s supporters argued that he had successfully used the episode as punctuation in his fight against illegal immigration, even using the caravan as a reason to deploy extra National Guard troops along the border.
The United States receives thousands of people claiming asylum each month, but in Pres. Trump’s showdown with the caravan, the president attempted to turn its members – mostly women and children from places such as El Salvador and Honduras – into symbols of a weak American immigration system. Many of the migrants responded to the attention by sharing stories of the violence they said awaited them if they were sent home to countries bloodied by gang wars and crime.
The U.S. government was obliged to grant the migrants asylum interviews under international treaties, but the arc of their cases is impossible to predict and the process could take months or even years.
“The administration seems to have responded vigorously enough to avoid sending the message that future efforts like this caravan will succeed,” said Mark Krikorian, the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank advocating for less immigration. “Once you send the signal that some people will be able to get away with this, others will receive that signal and follow . . . and 150 people will become 150,000 and after that a million.”
Immigration attorneys who represent asylum applicants disagreed with that thesis.
Government officials “think their words and rhetoric can deter people from coming here unlawfully,” said Bryan Johnson, an immigration lawyer based in Bay Shore, New York. “But the people who come aren’t going to be deterred. They don’t have a choice.”
The caravan set out from southern Mexico more than a month ago and initially numbered over 1,000 people. While other such groups have marched toward the U.S. border in the past without receiving much attention, this one drew the ire of conservative media outlets and the Trump administration, which saw it as planning to flout U.S. immigration law.
The Trump administration has said that many asylum applicants disappear after being freed following their initial court dates, joining the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country. Because most members of the Central American caravan are families, they would typically be released with ankle bracelets to monitor their movement. With the enormous amount of attention on the caravan, however, some lawyers worried that these migrants could deported quickly.
“This particular group was more open about how they were coming to the U.S., and now they’re suffering the political consequences,” Johnson said.
Even as the administration allowed some members of the caravan to start applying for asylum, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced criminal charges against 11 suspected members of the group for allegedly entering the country illegally. While the main caravan group is waiting to enter through the port of entry, a Justice Department statement said these migrants were picked up crossing into the country elsewhere along the border.
“The United States will not stand by as our immigration laws are ignored and our nation’s safety is jeopardized,” Sessions said in a statement.
Alex Mensing, one of the caravan coordinators, said he did not know whether the people charged had been part of the group. In legal workshops, the migrants have been told that “crossing anywhere other than a port of entry is a crime that’s prosecutable, and we never encourage anyone to do that,” he said.
In 2016, the most recent year for which the government has issued statistics, there were 65,218 asylum applications and only 8,726 people were granted residency. Immigration lawyers have said that the process has become even more difficult under the Trump administration, with the appointment of judges unlikely to rule favorably.
As members of the caravan waited here for their turn to cross the border, there was no guarantee that many of them would get legal representation. Asylum applicants do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney.
Luis Alexander Rodriguez Pineda, 18, came from El Salvador with his cousin and his uncle because of what he described as death threats from gangs. He knew his chances of earning asylum depended in part on what attorney he might get on the other side of the border.
“It depends on your case,” Pineda said. “If your case is strong, you’re one of those who says, ‘I’m going to pass and win.’ But it also depends on the lawyer that we pay, that our families pay, or that decides to help us.”
Pres. Trump tweeted last week that he had ordered the secretary of homeland security “not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country,” adding, “It is a disgrace.”
It remains unclear how fast the Trump administration plans to process the remaining migrants. The San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego has detention space for about 300 people. U.S. officials have not said how many people are being held there. Asylum seekers are typically detained until officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conduct interviews to determine whether they have a credible fear of persecution or torture if they are sent home.
Trump administration officials say that more migrants are applying for asylum than in the past, in an attempt to take advantage of immigration rules. The number of foreigners making a claim of “credible fear” rose nearly 1,900 percent between 2008 and 2016, according to the Department of Homeland Security.