Border agents are illegally turning away people seeking asylum or refusing to deal with their requests, according to a report released Wednesday by a human rights group.
U.S. law requires border agents to refer people who arrive at the border and request asylum to an interview with an asylum officer or to an immigration court. But Human Rights First, which issued a report Wednesday and is briefing Senate offices on the issue Thursday, said that's not what's happening.
"We're looking at an extremely dire situation where the U.S. is sending a message to arriving refugees and asylum seekers that degrades their global leadership and respect for human rights," said Shaw Drake, the report's lead researcher and a fellow at Human Rights First.
Drake said while the denials began during the Obama administration, agents appear to have been emboldened by Trump's views on immigration, saying that in some cases Customs and Border Protection agents, overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, used statements that referenced the election or the administration.
"Some blame does lie with the Obama administration's handling of the Central American crisis," Shaw said. "But the rhetoric of Trump and the Department of Homeland Security ... the quote (from Trump) that 'the handcuffs are off,' that officers are free to enforce immigration laws" also are playing a role.
Human Rights First visited the border in California, Arizona and Texas and Reynosa, Matamoros, Nogales and Tijuana, Mexico in February through April. The group said it documented 125 cases of individuals denied access to the U.S. asylum process at ports of entry, although the group said many are not reported.
CBP spokesman Michael Friel said in an emailed statement that the agency has not changed any policies affecting asylum seekers.
"As an agency, CBP does not tolerate any kind of abuse," he said.
"If an officer or agent encounters a U.S.-bound migrant without legal papers and the person expresses fear of being returned to his/her home country, our officers process them for an interview with an asylum officer," he said.
"CBP officers are not authorized to determine ore evaluate the validity of the fear expressed," he said.
DHS Secretary John Kelly is scheduled to speak Thursday at a forum hosted by Atlantic Council on the administration's Central America policies.
This is not the first time the issue has been raised. In mid-January, eight immigration and civil rights groups filed a complaint with the Department of Human Rights Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the DHS's Office of Inspector General, making similar accusations. The complaint called the CBP agents' behavior "systemic."
Katie Shepherd, a legal fellow with the American Immigration Council, said the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has been responsive to the complaint and OIG is actively investigating.
Shepherd said the groups that filed the complaint are "contemplating and seriously exploring litigation."
Shepherd, Human Rights First and other groups also aired the issue at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The groups asked for an investigation and for the commission to demand CBP address the problems and improve training.
The State Department was absent from the hearing, a rare absence. The State Department said at the time that it was not participating because of ongoing litigation.
In a statement at that time, Nicole Ramos of the Latin America Working Group said that she had escorted 68 asylum seekers to a port of entry and witnessed CBP officers, supervisors and private security guards try to turn people seeking asylum away or deny them an interview.
"I have heard all of these officers state that a person cannot seek asylum at a port-of-entry; that they must go to the consulate or the embassy; that they simply do not qualify; ... that asylum is no longer available, that they can only apply at one single port of entry," Ramos stated then.
Leah Chavla, a program officer with the Women's Refugee Commission, said such denials are continuing to happen. She said she and a colleague interviewed a number of migrants in Texas and northern Mexico last month and "I'm able to tell you there are people who have been turned back."
The landscape of immigration has changed in recent years. Mexican immigration has dropped to net zero and more people arrive at the border and request asylum. Not only does U.S. law apply, but treaty obligations also help govern how asylum seekers are treated at the border.
Human Rights First pointed out in its report that Trump acknowledged U.S. obligations to asylum seekers in his anti-terrorism executive order of March 6. The order states that nothing in the order should "limit the ability of an individual seeking asylum … consistent with the laws of the United States."
But the groups say that's not what is happening on the ground.
Human Rights First reported that the rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration have emboldened agents to throw up barriers when people request asylum when they seek it at the border.
For example, in February, the family of a youth who was killed by Mara Salvatrucha after a U.S. immigration judge denied his asylum, requested asylum at the Hidalgo, Texas, port of entry.
According to Human Rights First, a border officer told them "You cannot be here, no Hondurans. If you don't leave I will have to use force to remove you." When the family tried a second time, CBP agents forcibly removed the family and forced them to return to Mexico.
Such denials are putting families in danger and also contributing to illegal border crossings, Human Rights First said.
"While recent data shows CBP agents referred some 8,000 asylum seekers at ports of entry from December 2016 to March 2017, an unknown number of asylum seekers have been unlawfully rejected," the Human Rights Frist report states.
The U.S. worked with Mexico to organize the arrivals of asylum seekers setting up an appointment system through Grupos Beta, an arm of Mexico's immigration agency. Human Rights First said U.S. border agents in some cases are referring asylum seekers to that group when they ask for asylum.
But Human Rights First said the appointment system is plagued with misinformation and abuse and continues to be used at San Ysidro port of entry, even though Haitain immigrants trying to enter the U.S. - which led to the appointment system - has fallen.