US starts returning asylum seekers to Mexico to await court dates

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The United States began sending migrants who have applied for asylum back to Mexico on Tuesday to await their court dates under President Donald Trump’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy.

Katarlo Gomez Cardomo of Honduras was the first to be sent back, said an AFP correspondent in the border city of Tijuana, across from San Diego, California. Mexican immigration authorities ushered him into a waiting van and took him to a shelter for migrants.

The US embassy in Mexico City confirmed in a statement that Washington had begun implementing the new policy, which critics say is anti-immigrant and could put vulnerable refugees at risk.

“The United States has begun implementing the Migrant Protection Protocols,” it said, using the US Department of Homeland Security’s name for the policy.

“This action is a response to the illegal migration crisis the United States is facing on its southern border.”

It said asylum claims in the US have increased by 2,000 percent in the past five years, “since many migrants know that applying for asylum gives them an opportunity to remain in the United States, even if they do not have a valid asylum claim.”

Announced last year, the policy is meant to stop what Trump calls “catch and release” -- allowing migrants who cross the border without papers and claim asylum to remain in the United States while their cases are processed.

Mexico disagrees

But the plan has been sharply criticized by opponents on both sides of the border.

Migrants have been tortured, raped and killed in Mexico’s often violent border regions, and the new policy violates the right of people whose lives are genuinely at risk to seek asylum in the US, activists say.

Mexico has said it “disagrees” with the policy, but will grant the migrants temporary visas for humanitarian reasons.

“The United States has decided unilaterally to ask them to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed,” said Rodulfo Figueroa, head of Mexico’s immigration office in Tijuana.

He said the number of migrants sent back daily would depend on the United States.

Mexican authorities have said the US plans to continue presenting 20 people a day at the Tijuana crossing, and eventually extend the policy to other points along the 3,145-kilometer (2,000-mile) border.

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