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Mexican immigration officers to begin inspecting San Diego-bound travelers in border wait line

Mexican immigration officers, accompanied by security forces, will be checking travelers’ documents before they enter the United States from the car lanes at the San Ysidro Port of Entry beginning Tuesday — a move that highlights Mexico’s escalating role in helping the U.S. control migration to the United States.

Mexican officials say the move is an attempt to speed up border crossings. Using Mexican immigration officers to filter out travelers without valid documents before they get to the United States — a task currently performed by U.S. border authorities — would allow U.S. officials to redirect resources to staffing more travel lanes for Mexican commuters, the officials hope.

Consul General of Mexico in San Diego Carlos González Gutiérrez called the program a “binational collaboration exercise” intended to bring the port of entry to its “full potential.”

Meanwhile, immigration and human rights advocates are concerned about what the move will mean for asylum seekers, whom the extra checks are ostensibly meant to stop.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently stations officers at the physical border line — known as the “limit line” and delineated by a yellow line with raised bumps on the ground — to check that drivers and their passengers have documents to enter the United States. It is an initial inspection point just a short stretch from the booths where more CBP officers fully review travelers’ documents and determine whether cars can proceed.

The current double layer of U.S. officials at the border has been around since at least last summer. It is a response to asylum seekers, particularly Russians, driving onto U.S. soil in the car lanes to request protection because they had few options for doing so under U.S. policies.

Mexican officials hope that as part of the pilot program, which runs from Nov. 15 through Jan. 15, CBP will assign those officials to open more crossing lanes since Mexican authorities will be doing a similar job. González Gutiérrez said Mexican negotiators had been very clear with the United States on this point.

CBP did not respond to a request for comment.

Vehicles get in line to cross into the United States on Feb. 4, 2022, in Tijuana. A CBP officer stands at the official demarcation of the U.S.-Mexico border, inspecting documents before the official booth checkpoint at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

(Alejandro Tamayo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

To those who view many of Mexico’s migration policies as an externalization of the U.S. border, the program appears to be just another way that Mexico is helping the United States avoid its legal obligation to screen asylum seekers’ refugee claims.

Mexico’s decision to help the U.S. screen people en route to its territory is part of a larger change that has happened over the past several years in the two countries’ relationship, according to Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America.

“Mexico for decades did not want to be seen as an auxiliary or an appendage of U.S. border security policy,” Isacson said. “Five or 10 years ago it would’ve been unthinkable to see the Mexicans say ‘yes’ to something like this.”

González Gutiérrez emphasized that the idea of training Mexican officials to guard the zone is to “accelerate the flow of traffic during a busy season” and that they are meant to discourage “irregular activities.”

“We’re not keeping or impeding anyone from requesting asylum,” González Gutiérrez said. “The only thing we’re doing is protecting the infrastructure that we have to accelerate crossings, reduce wait times and ensure that this port of entry is used for what it should be used for.”

Business communities and commuters have for years complained about the extended wait times at the border, particularly since the pandemic closing of PedWest, a pedestrian crossing near the Las Americas outlets on the U.S. side. The crossing has yet to reopen, with CBP citing limited resources as the reason.

“We are staffing quite a bit more workload with the same resources,” San Ysidro Port Director Mariza Marin told the Union-Tribune in September, noting that agency hiring suffered at the onset of the pandemic.

Gustavo de la Fuente, executive director of the Smart Border Coalition, called the pilot program a wise decision, since it could lead to the opening of more lanes.

“I’m pleased that they are taking new actions to speed up crossings,” he said.

Officials announced the pilot program Wednesday after a meeting among González Gutiérrez, Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero, Consul General of the United States in Tijuana Tom Reott, and others.

It will be set up in both the Ready Lane line and the trusted traveler lanes used by SENTRI holders roughly 100 yards from the border and near a pedestrian bridge that crosses over the waiting lanes, according to Mexican authorities. The inspection point will operate 24 hours a day.

Mexican immigration officials work with National Guard soldiers at a check point near Tapachula

Mexican immigration officials work with National Guard soldiers at a checkpoint near Tapachula on Sept. 29, 2021, at the Mexico-Guatemala border in an effort to deter migrants traveling north through Mexico and onto the United States.

(Alejandro Tamayo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Officials from Mexico’s immigration agency, the Instituto Nacional de Migración, or INM, will run the inspection point and will be accompanied by security forces working in shifts, among them the Tijuana municipal police, state police from Baja California and the Mexican National Guard. Those who don’t have proper documents, Mexican officials said, will be taken to a Mexican immigration station for processing.

Only INM officials will have authority to ask travelers for proof of documents necessary to enter the port of entry, according to González Gutiérrez. However, he did not anticipate that they will ask for documents from every traveler. Rather, he said, they will look for “suspicious automobiles.”

Reott first floated the idea in 2021 of having Mexican officials reviewing documents in northbound border traffic at a press conference after a brainstorming meeting with Mexican officials.

When asked about the pilot program, his office directed the Union-Tribune to a State Department spokesperson, who deferred to Mexican officials and CBP.

CBP began placing officers on the limit line after asylum seekers, mostly Russians, began using the car lanes last year as a way to reach U.S. soil. Asylum seekers must generally be on U.S. soil to begin the legal process to request protection in the United States.

For years, CBP officers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry have similarly monitored pedestrians at the limit line to restrict processing of asylum seekers, creating months-long wait lines in Tijuana. When asked about the policy, known as “metering,” CBP said that it was because of resource limits, particularly when it comes to the capacity in the port’s holding cells. However, asylum advocates have questioned that claim, particularly after hundreds of Ukrainian asylum seekers were processed per day at the San Ysidro Port of Entry earlier this year.

After a pandemic policy shut down asylum processing at ports of entry completely, asylum seekers desperate to bring their cases to the United States increasingly turned to crossing without permission — often taking risky routes over the border wall, through desert, mountains and rivers, or on easily-capsized panga boats in the ocean — to try to reach safety.

While the port of entry car lanes can be risky — some have been prosecuted in federal court after their cars made contact with officers standing at the limit line, and an officer shot at a car in December 2021 — that method doesn’t come with the statistics of known deaths associated with other ways of crossing the border. That made it an appealing option for asylum seekers with enough money to purchase or rent a car in Tijuana. As word spread of the car lane crossings, Russian YouTube channels sprang up offering tips for the journey to the United States.

Russians have been coming to the Tijuana-San Diego border for years to request asylum, and those numbers only increased after the invasion of Ukraine. Many who object to the war fled to avoid becoming political targets of its oppressive regime — conditions that could qualify them as refugees.

A man is handcuffed and taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers

A man is handcuffed and taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on Feb. 4, 2022.

(Alejandro Tamayo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In the spring of 2022, CBP organized with local nonprofits to create daily lists of asylum seekers who would be exempted from the still-in-place pandemic policy and allowed into the port of entry on foot to request protection, offering an alternative to crossing in cars.

Still, asylum seekers often wait months to get in through this process, and information about it can be difficult to find. A Russian family told the Union-Tribune that they only found out about the exemptions after attempting to cross in cars more than once.

As Mexico moves to aid the United States in deterring these crossings, it could be moving into questionable legal territory.

In 2017, a lawsuit challenged the U.S. government’s ability to turn around asylum seekers in the moments before they reach its soil. More than a year ago, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant sided with asylum seekers in the case, saying that when they are in the process of arriving in the United States, U.S. law applies and their claims must be processed, that government officials cannot turn them around.

But so far, there’s been no change in practice on the ground. That’s because the lawsuit doesn’t address Title 42, the pandemic policy that fully shut down asylum processing at ports of entry and that allows officials to expel many asylum seekers who cross without authorization. The legality of that policy has been questioned in another lawsuit, but when the Biden administration tried to end Title 42, a federal judge ordered that it be kept in place for now.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has appealed Bashant’s order.

“The core problem here is that the United States continues to close its ports of entry to asylum seekers, including Russians who have pretty strong asylum cases. And rather than encourage the United States to open to asylum seekers so Russians wouldn’t be compelled to drive over the line, (Mexico is) offering to help block them, which appears to violate international law,” said Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. “They’re wiling to go that far to cooperate with the current U.S. approach.”

Despite Mexico’s former hesitancy to be a migration force for the United States, the new pilot program is a detail in a long list of ways that Mexico now works to stop asylum seekers and other migrants from reaching the United States — from deploying troops to both of its borders to changing visa requirements for Brazilians, Venezuelans and Ecuadorans. Most recently, Mexico agreed to allow the United States to expand the nationalities that can be expelled back to Mexican soil after crossing north to include Venezuelans.

Instituto Nacional de Migración officials take a group of Haitian migrants into custody

Mexican Instituto Nacional de Migración officials take a group of Haitian migrants into custody near Guadalupe Victoria on the Mexico-Guatemala border on Oct. 1, 2021. The Mexican immigration agency has been working to quell northbound migration before asylum seekers reach the United States.

(Alejandro Tamayo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Mexico once again will do the dirty work,” said attorney Soraya Vazquez in Spanish.

A Mexico-trained and licensed attorney with Al Otro Lado, a legal services organization that supports asylum seekers in Tijuana, Vazquez wants to know how Mexican immigration officials will determine which cars are “suspicious” to review documents. She sees the potential for racial profiling and violations of rights that would go against the Mexican constitution, she said. Based on the details of the pilot that have come out so far, she said, she thinks Mexico is opening itself up to a lawsuit.

“Mexico gives into everything, sacrificing its own human rights and the legality of its own agencies. Many times, they don’t have legal right to do the things they agree to do,” Vazquez said of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. “That’s what I see, sadly.”

González Gutiérrez said it was an error to see the situation that way.

“We’re doing this for our own interest,” he said. “I think that it’s in the interest of Mexico to organize the flows in an orderly way and reduce wait times, and I think that it’s an error that we on the Mexican side act the fool and wait for the United States to resolve everything on its side.”

Like Isacson, Vazquez said it would be a lot simpler for the United States to put resources toward processing asylum seekers rather than making more ways to stop them.

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