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As Caravan of Migrants Begins Entry at U.S.-Mexico Border, Trump Admin Attacks Legal Asylum Process

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A standoff continues on the U.S.-Mexico border, where scores of asylum seekers are attempting to cross into the United States after taking part in a month-long caravan that began more than 2,000 miles away in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Many of the caravan participants are migrants fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Around 100 have been accepted for processing, but scores remain camped out by the border near San Diego, California, as officials claim the border entry point has limited capacity. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have attacked the migrants in statements and tweets. “It’s very clear that President Trump and Attorney General Sessions do not understand this section of federal law,” says attorney Nicole Ramos, director of the Border Rights Project of Al Otro Lado, who represents members of the caravan. “The caravan members that are camped out at the border are trying to access a legal process which has existed for decades.” We speak with Ramos, who is in Tijuana, Mexico, and with Tristan Call, a volunteer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, or People Without Borders, just back from spending time with the caravan.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A standoff continues on the U.S.-Mexico border, where scores of asylum seekers are attempting to cross into the United States after taking part in a month-long caravan that began more than 2,000 miles away in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Many of the caravan participants are migrants fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The caravan is organized annually by the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, or People Without Borders. It made international headlines this year, largely thanks to President Trump. In one tweet, Trump wrote, quote, “Getting more dangerous. 'Caravans' coming.” During a rally in Michigan on Saturday, Trump again criticized the caravan.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We believe that a strong nation must have strong borders.

CROWD: Build the wall! Build the wall! Build the wall! Build the wall! Build the wall! Build the wall! Build the wall!

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Are you watching that mess that’s going on right now with the caravan coming up? Are you watching this? And our laws are so weak, they’re so pathetic, given to us by Democrats.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Under international law, the United States must allow foreigners seeking asylum to enter the country. But supporters of the caravan say border authorities have been slow to take in members of the caravan seeking asylum. Around a hundred asylum seekers have been accepted for processing, but scores remain camped out by the border near San Diego, California. This is caravan member Nefi Hernández from Honduras.

NEFI HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] We hope for understanding. We hope for a bit of heart, so U.S. authorities can understand that we come to seek asylum from our countries. We can’t return. In my case, I can’t return to my country, because I’m in danger of losing my life, not just mine, but those of my family, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would send an additional 35 assistant U.S. attorneys and 18 immigration judges to the U.S.-Mexico border.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: We are not going to let this country be overwhelmed. People are not going to caravan or otherwise stampede our border. We need legality and integrity in the system. People should wait their turn, ask to apply lawfully before they enter our country. So we’re sending a message worldwide: Don’t come illegally. Make your claim to enter America in the lawful way, and wait your turn.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Atlanta, Tristan Call is a volunteer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which is People Without Borders, just back from spending time with the caravan in Mexico. And joining us on the phone from the border, from Tijuana, Mexico, Nicole Ramos is director of the Border Rights Project of Al Otro Lado, a project that works with asylum seekers who want to present themselves to U.S. authorities.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! And we want to begin with Nicole. Tell us the latest. You have President Trump constantly railing against this caravan, demanding that Mexico break it up before it got to the border, as he’s demanded they pay for the border wall. The caravan has arrived at the border, maybe fewer people than was originally intended. And you’ve got what? More than 25 people who have already processed? Explain the situation.

NICOLE RAMOS: The caravan members that are camped out at the border are trying to access a legal process which has existed for decades. It’s very clear that President Trump and Attorney General Sessions do not understand this section of federal law, under Title 8, Section 1225 of the United States Code. This is not illegal migration. This is the legal process, which allows an asylum seeker to present themselves at a port of entry to an immigration officer, indicate that they have a fear of return, after which time they are to be granted an interview with an asylum officer. So, their commentary that this is a stampede, this is illegal migration, this is not waiting their turn—this is the process.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what explanation, Nicole, have you received for why there have been such delays in the processing of these asylees or people seeking asylum, not having been granted it?

NICOLE RAMOS: U.S. Customs and Border Protection has indicated that they lack the capacity at the port of entry to process these asylum seekers. However, they were aware that this caravan was traveling for now almost a month, and the numbers have significantly diminished [inaudible] 200 presenting themselves. And what we have is either a failure to prepare or a refusal to prepare. And I would argue it is the latter, given that Customs and Border Protection is the largest law enforcement agency in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you make of Jeff Sessions saying he’s sending more lawyers and judges to the border right now, and talking about people can’t overrun the border?

NICOLE RAMOS: People are not trying to overrun the border. It’s a very small group when you consider all the people that migrate in a year. And the fact that he’s sending more attorneys and more judges to adjudicate the cases, that’s assuming that people first get past the first step, which is an interview with an asylum officer. So, his allocation of resources, his calculus, is two steps ahead, which again indicates to me that, unfortunately, Attorney General Sessions does not understand immigration law very well.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nicole, you’re in Tijuana, Mexico. Could you describe what the scene is there at the border?

NICOLE RAMOS: It’s a desperate situation. It’s hopeful in the sense that people, you know, they know that they are not going to be camped out forever. They don’t know how long they will be waiting. But it is a desperate situation to come so far, and coming to the U.S. because we are a nation of laws, because we do put ourselves out on the world stage as a nation that fights for human rights and respects human rights, and to get to the border and have the port of entry door literally closed in their faces. And I’ve been down to the gate to the U.S., and it is almost all but blocked off, except for one tiny door. And so that, in itself, is very heartbreaking. But it’s a testament to the desperation that the people feel and the fear that is driving them to flee their countries, is that they’re willing to go to a place that they know may be hostile to them, because it is the only option.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the arrival of the caravan at the U.S.-Mexico border, where he attacked you, Nicole Ramos, by name.

TUCKER CARLSON: The left argues we have no moral right to stop any of them from doing that. Here’s attorney Nicole Ramos of Tijuana denouncing the U.S. government as criminal for trying to enforce our own federal law. Watch.

NICOLE RAMOS: The message for Customs and Border Protection: Stop rejecting asylum seekers who try to present themselves at the port of entry. You know what you’re doing. You know you turn people away. You complain that they are breaking the law by entering illegally. You are breaking the law, and you are forcing them to break the law. That’s why we have caravans.

TUCKER CARLSON: Yeah, that’s definitely someone you want in control of our public policy, screaming into a bullhorn.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Nicole Ramos, live on the border, to Tucker Carlson of Fox News?

NICOLE RAMOS: Well, I’m using a bullhorn because I’m at a press conference and it’s a pretty chaotic scene, so that the crowd could hear me. I don’t normally walk around with a bullhorn.

Customs and Border Protection has a history, dating back years, of rejecting asylum seekers who try to present themselves and follow the legal process. I have been collecting data on illegal turnbacks in Tijuana at the port of entry since December of 2015. I have accompanied hundreds of asylum seekers. And of those hundreds that I’ve accompanied, there are countless times that a CBP officer has told the client that I’m with that they cannot seek asylum at a port of entry, that they have to go to the embassy in their home country, or the consulate, which just—it’s not true.

That the law is that it allows someone to go to a port of entry. And it forces people who don’t have the support of advocates to try to enter through irregular means. These are people who are trying to follow the law. And you have federal law enforcement officers who are breaking the law, and who are so brazen in their disregard for the law that they will do it in front of an attorney, an officer of the court. And this history is well documented in the human rights reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First. And it’s the subject of litigation that our organization has filed against DHS.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to some of the people who have been seeking asylum. Channel, a 28-year-old Honduran trans woman, for instance, said she had no option but to leave her country because of the discrimination she faced at home due to her sexual orientation.

CHANNEL: [translated] I don’t think I’ll ever return to my country, because I don’t think I’d survive to tell my story. I have already survived an attack, and it’s very difficult. I’ve already been between life and death. I was in a coma for three days, and I wouldn’t want that for me.

In the United States, I see myself sleeping calmly. I see myself sleeping better, not only myself, but my friends, where we are able to obtain more respect, where there is no bullying against us, where people don’t shout at us, where the decision of each person is truly respected, such as the decision of being trans women.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Tristan Call, you’re a volunteer with People Without Borders. You’ve just returned from spending time with the caravan in Mexico. Could you talk about the conditions that people seeking asylum are fleeing?

TRISTAN CALL: Yeah. I think one of the most important things to understand in why people traveled in a caravan together is not just that they’re people who have been displaced by tremendous trauma and violence in the countries that they’re coming from, but also traveling through Mexico is an incredibly dangerous thing. It’s become more and more dangerous because of the forms of criminalization that are getting replicated from the U.S. model in Mexico. And so, the amounts of violence, of kidnapping, of assaults by Mexican officials within Mexico against migrants who are en route, is one of the main reasons why they’ve decided to band together for their own security.

Coming from Honduras especially, I think it’s important to understand that there’s a regional crisis that’s going on in Central America, where larger and larger numbers of people are being expelled through violence and discrimination, in Honduras especially through political violence after the continuation in power of Juan Orlando Hernández, who most people in Honduras understand is staying in power through an electoral fraud.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole Ramos, what happens next on the border?

NICOLE RAMOS: Apart from ensuring that the caravan members are able to present themselves in accordance with U.S. law, what happens next is unclear, because for the last several weeks, months, we’ve had asylum seekers camped out in front of the port of entry. So what’s happening to the caravan is the continuation of an existing phenomenon, where Customs and Border Protection will artificially set a limit for how many people it will accept a day. It won’t process asylum seekers at night. It’s indicated to Mexican authorities that they don’t process people on the weekends. And so, what they’re doing is they’re setting these artificial parameters that don’t exist anywhere in our federal regulations.

And one of the strengths of the caravan is that it’s allowing asylum seekers to come out of the shadow in Mexico. Not only are we dealing with the caravan members on the ground, but now we have other asylum seekers who are coming to the camp because they know attorneys are there, and they’re asking questions, and they’re talking about their own experiences of being turned away after trying to present themselves multiple times. And so, we’re going to be continuing to collect that data. We’re going to continue to advocate for those individuals after the caravan leaves, and we’re going to continue doing this work. We may not have a camp, but we are going to sit outside of the port of entry until they process every single one of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, Nicole Ramos of the Border Rights Project of Al Otro Lado, which means “The Other Side,” and Tristan Call with the group People Without Borders.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the acclaimed writer, activist Arundhati Roy. Stay with us.

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