Human rights groups have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, claiming that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is turning asylum seekers away at the border in violation of U.S. and international law. They've even released an audio recording that seems to demonstrate the truth of their claims.
The American Immigration Council and other advocacy groups claim that CBP agents not only violate laws meant to protect asylum seekers' rights, but that they're making spurious and misleading claims to do so, according to NPR. This may have dissuaded an unknown number of legitimate asylum seekers fleeing violent gangs in Central America.
The audio recording, which was released by Human Rights First, was made by two volunteer advocates who were attempting to help a Honduran family apply for asylum in the U.S. at the San Ysidro, California, border crossing. Human Rights First says it was not involved in the recording and would not release the names of anyone on the recording.
When the family first seeks to be processed, a CBP agent tells the family they must first register with Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Migracion, or INM. A volunteer advocate objects, saying first that the family has already checked in with Mexican authorities who denied them any aid. He also points out that there is nothing in U.S. immigration law requiring a Honduran asylum seeker to first apply to Mexico before their request can be processed by the U.S.
"Are you denying them the ability to request asylum in the United States?" he asks. But a second CBP agent insists that the family must first contact Mexican authorities. He says there is an arrangement between the U.S. and Mexico requiring it in order to regulate the flow of asylum seekers. After talking to a supervisor, however, the second agent agrees to process their request.
Other activists have reported what seems to be a pattern of false statements and other dodges by CBP officials making applying difficult or impossible for asylum seekers. They claim border agents have told asylum seekers that they must have a U.S. visa before they can apply, or that parents will have to be separated from their children. More recently, some have said that Donald Trump has eliminated the asylum program altogether.
"These things are simply untrue," says the legal director of the American Immigration Council. "All of these tactics serve to deny bona fide asylum seekers the opportunity to pursue their claims," she says.
Customs and Border Protection would not comment on the litigation but said it "enforces the law humanely, respectfully and with professionalism." However, it did admit that there have been no recent changes to U.S. asylum policy.