Controversial policies are being used to expedite removal of asylum-seekers, lawyer says

McALLEN, Texas — As she was reviewing her past week’s client cases, immigration lawyer Charlene D’Cruz noticed a disturbing trend: None of her clients had first-hearing cases scheduled for February. In fact, she hadn’t received any new clients with a first hearing scheduled.

D’Cruz, who works for the nonprofit Lawyers for Good Government and aids migrants living in a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, said “a light bulb suddenly went off” in her brain and she realized that controversial immigration policies that lead to expedited removals of asylum-seekers were now being used on migrants crossing into South Texas.

The controversial policies are known as PACR and HARP, which stand for Prompt Asylum Claim Review, and Humanitarian Asylum Review Process, respectively. These policies were first started in El Paso in October under the Trump administration. Opponents of these policies say they deny asylum-seekers access to legal counsel when they’re screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, and it often leads to their quick deportation with no asylum claims granted or future court hearings scheduled.

D’Cruz — who said she typically does intake for up to 50 new asylum-seekers daily at the Matamoros refugee camp where 2,500 migrants now live — told Border Report on Thursday that she believes both policies are being used on new migrants in CBP’s Rio Grande Sector.

CBS reported on Dec. 31 that PACR has been used here as a pilot program, and was expanded in December as a way to promote “streamlined, same location asylum claims.”

On Thursday, immigration lawyers told Border Report that they believe both PACR and HARP have been started in South Texas.

Border Report has asked CBP officials whether both of these policies have been implemented in the Rio Grande Valley, but has not received a response. This story will be updated if new information is received.

When PACR and HARP were first started in El Paso as pilot programs, federal officials did not notify the media or announce the new policy. The Department of Homeland Security still has not released an explanation of what these programs fully entail. Other immigration programs like the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also called Remain in Mexico, are explained on the agency’s website.

Most of the 2,500 migrants living at the Matamoros refugee camp are part of MPP. They are given U.S. immigration court hearing dates and must wait in Mexico during the asylum process. But under PACR, migrants are quickly screened by CBP within a couple of days and without having attained legal counsel. If they fail to prove that they have a credible fear of returning to their country, or fear of prosecution in their home country, then they are deported immediately with no future court hearings set.

HARP and PACR are similar, but HARP is applied to Mexican nationals seeking U.S. asylum. DHS typically applies different programs to Mexican nationals who, for instance, are not eligible for MPP. Currently, thousands of Mexican nationals are forced to remain in Mexico due to Trump-era U.S. metering policies at U.S. ports of entry, which only allow so many Mexican national asylum-seekers to enter on any given day.

Asylum-seekers living at a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, line up for food on Dec. 22, 2019. Over 2,500 migrants live in the camp on the banks of the Rio Grande, which is across the bridge from Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

PACR and HARP began in El Paso in 2019

CBS News on Dec. 31 reported that PACR was begun in South Texas last month and quoted a CBP official as saying over 1,000 migrants already have been put into the program.

That makes sense to D’Cruz who said that she thought it was strange that last week she had no new clients with notices issued for first appearances — also commonly called NTOs — scheduled for February for U.S. immigration court. Typically, it takes four to six weeks for migrants to be issued their first U.S. asylum court appearance date, so D’Cruz said she would have expected to see court appearance paperwork for February for any migrants who crossed in December.

“I just figured it out,” D’Cruz said Thursday via phone from her offices near the refugee camp in Matamoros. “I looked at it yesterday and I think, yeah they have started it here.”

“It’s very disconcerting to me because I think they’re being soft-celled in Donna,” she said.

CBS reported that migrants arriving from Central America, Cuba and Africa are now being sent to CBP facilities, like the massive tent city south of Donna, Texas, where they are being quickly interviewed by CBP agents in what is called a credible fear interview (or CFI.)

Previously, these interviews were conducted in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, where asylum-seekers were allowed to speak with and meet with lawyers and had phone access to legal counsel. CBP facilities, however, do not guarantee that migrants will be allowed a phone call, nor allow lawyers access.

“It’s really confusing how these programs interplay with one another but the really tricky thing about PACR is it condenses the asylum process,” said Efren Olivares, racial and economic justice program director for the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project.

“Instead of waiting weeks for the credible fear interview (CFI), all of that is condensed down to a few days including the Border Patrol doing the CFI, which is just outrageous because you have the prosecutor acting as the judge, if you will,” said Olivares, whose nonprofit organization also gives legal aid to migrants at the Matamoros camp.

It’s just another way to destroy the asylum process, the institution of asylum in the U.S.”

Efren Olivares, racial and economic justice program director for the Texas Civil Rights Project

Expediting this process does not allow migrants the opportunity to understand the U.S. legal system or time to frame their pleas for asylum, Olivares said.

“It’s always difficult to frame a question as to why asylum claims and that takes weeks to assemble the story and gather evidence and now they are condensing it in to a day or two. It’s just another way to destroy the asylum process, the institution of asylum in the U.S.”

Last month, the El Paso advocacy group Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center filed for an injunction against the CBP policies PACR and HARP, which they said are sending asylum seekers back to places where their lives are in danger. The legal brief by against HARP and PACR came after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against the two programs, which they said have turned the American asylum process into a “deportation machine.”

Read a Border Report story on the lawsuit and legal brief.

Olivares said immigration advocates are most disturbed that new policies, like these, are all being “dictated by executive fiat” by President Donald Trump without Congress setting any new immigration laws.

“Little by little they are chipping away at the asylum process,” Olivares said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.

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