12/05/2018 19:39 EST | Updated 01/09/2019 13:50 EST

Trump Administration Is Turning Child Migrants Away At The Border, Lawyers Say

In the past, unaccompanied migrant children who showed up with a lawyer weren’t turned away from seeking asylum, one attorney said. But now they are.

U.S. officials turned away seven unaccompanied minors attempting to make asylum claims at the border Tuesday night, immigrant rights lawyers said, the latest escalation in the ongoing battle over the Trump administration’s efforts to deter migrants, including kids, from showing up at U.S. ports of entry to legally seek safety from persecution in their home countries.

In recent months, President Donald Trump’s administration has increasingly turned away asylum-seekers and told them to come back later, a system the government calls “metering.” In the past, one surefire way for unaccompanied minors to be allowed to cross the border and start an asylum claim was for a legal worker to escort them. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection turned the seven minors away even as several lawyers and volunteers with the legal services nonprofit Al Otro Lado protested, according to Nicole Ramos, director of the group’s Border Rights Project.

U.S. Border Patrol agents on Dec. 2, 2018.

Legal workers with Al Otro Lado had screened eight children for asylum and other humanitarian immigration claims and taken them on as clients. CBP eventually allowed only one of them, a Mexican national, to cross into the United States. CBP officers at the Otay Mesa border crossing barred the seven remaining children and called Mexican immigration agents to return them to a nearby migrant shelter, Ramos said.

“CBP officers chose to line up a blue wall to prevent the children from reaching the gate,” Ramos told HuffPost. “While all this was happening, there were eight to 10 Mexican police there for crowd control, because that’s apparently what they need for children.”

CBP has previously attempted to dissuade child migrants represented by Al Otro Lado from making asylum claims at the border, Ramos said ― either by directing them back to the waitlist in Mexico or by claiming that officials lacked space to process them. But U.S. border officials would routinely back off when pressed by legal workers representing child migrants, and CBP did not get Mexican authorities involved.

“‘We’re going to call Mexican immigration agents to pick you up’ is a new thing,” Ramos said. “So now we’ve added additional layers of trauma onto already traumatized children by calling Mexican immigration agents to take them back to the shelter.”

Customs and Border Protection declined to say whether it subjects unaccompanied child migrants to wait-listing, and didn’t respond to HuffPost’s queries about Tuesday night’s incident at Otay Mesa.

A CBP spokesperson said the agency coordinates resources between ports of entry and that San Ysidro, another facility, has more capacity and resources for processing than smaller ones like Otay Mesa.

“No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum. Depending upon port circumstances at the time of arrival, individuals presenting without documents may be directed to a nearby facility where their processing will take place,” the official said in a statement. “This allows CBP to coordinate with Mexican officials and work through an established process where each individual is processed in the order that they arrive.”

It was unclear whether Tuesday night’s episode was a fluke, evidence of the haphazardness of an often improvised border policy, or part of a larger shift in the making.

While all this was happening, there were eight to 10 Mexican police there for crowd control, because that’s apparently what they need for children.Nicole Ramos, director of Al Otro Lado

The contentious “metering” policy predates Trump and has been implemented sporadically and inconsistently across the border. But it has vastly expanded over the last two years, as part of a broader set of sweeping changes aimed at dissuading Central American migrants ― particularly children and families traveling together ― from making asylum claims in the U.S.

The policy has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over the Trump administration’s attempts to repel asylum-seekers at the border. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen routinely says migrants should legally seek asylum at ports of entry rather than crossing the border without inspection first.

Critics contend that wait-listing people for weeks at a time encourages them to take their chances crossing illegally, often paying thousands of dollars to smugglers for help.

In practice, the management of the metered list falls to various groups, depending on the area, according to a forthcoming research paper examining the haphazard policy across eight ports of entry. In some areas, like the Tijuana-San Diego crossing, migrants themselves run the list. In other areas, local governments, NGOs and briefly in one case, the Red Cross, have played that role.

That lack of standards makes it difficult to know whether unaccompanied minors are treated similarly across the length of the border.

“Metering is targeting everyone,” Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs and a co-author of the upcoming paper, wrote in a message to HuffPost. “Unaccompanied minors don’t usually get blocked, but it’s not guaranteed.”

Unaccompanied minors often can’t get their names added to the waitlist. Near the San Ysidro port of entry, migrants managing the list for seeking asylum told HuffPost Wednesday that there were no unaccompanied minors on their ledger. One of the list managers said “no unaccompanied minors come here,” while others said they had to be escorted. In one case, a minor came alone to ask to be added to the list, and the managers referred him to Grupos Beta, part of the Mexican government’s National Institute of Migration, another volunteer managing the process said.

Grupos Beta officials insisted to HuffPost that they had no involvement in managing the list, but confirmed they were presented with one unaccompanied minor and referred him to the Mexican government’s child services arm.

Al Otro Lado accused Mexican officials of blocking unaccompanied children’s access to the waitlist in Tijuana last month in an ongoing lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s attempt to ban migrants from applying for asylum if they cross illegally. (A federal judge temporarily blocked that policy from moving forward last month.)

The long wait times, turnbacks and inability to get on the asylum-seeker list collectively put minors in a desperate position that could encourage them to try to enter the U.S. illegally if they feel unsafe waiting in Mexico indefinitely.

“Kids are being put in a situation where they’re very vulnerable and they’re very ripe for exploitation,” said Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice at the nonprofit Women’s Refugee Commission. “They’re in desperate need of some way to get to safety.”

Clarification: This post was updated to clarify that the Red Cross only briefly managed a migrant waitlist.