Originally published by LA Times

Asylum-seeking migrants who return to Central America under a controversial U.S. State Department-funded program may not be allowed to legally reenter Mexico to return to the border for their U.S. immigration hearings, according to Mexican immigration officials.

A United Nations agency, with $1.65 million in funding from the U.S. State Department, has been offering thousands of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border assistance returning to their home countries, including free bus and plane tickets back to Central America.

Until last month, both authorities and migrants said they thought people who wanted to come back up to the border for their U.S. immigration court hearings would be permitted to cross back through Mexico.

The groups returning home include migrants who arrived with the Central American caravan last November; people who have been assigned a number to wait their turn in Tijuana to legally claim asylum in the U.S. and migrants who have already crossed into the United States but were returned to Mexico.

Under their Assisted Voluntary Return program, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, IOM, has transported home more than 2,000 migrants since October, when the caravan arrived in Mexico City, according to Christopher Gascon, the chief of mission in Mexico for the IOM, known there as OIM.

Migrants have also been returning home from Tijuana on private bus and transportation companies. Jesus Alejandro Ruiz Uribe, the federal delegate in Baja California, said about half of the Central American migrants who were waiting in Tijuana and Mexicali have decided to go home.

Legal and human rights advocates question whether the migrants, particularly those seeking U.S. asylum, fully understand their rights and that they might not be permitted to return to Mexico when they agree to go back home. It’s a problem they say is especially concerning under the IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return program because of its U.S. government funding source.

Maureen Meyer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights research and advocacy organization, said many of the migrants returning home may feel they have no choice when faced with the dangers of waiting in Mexico.

The concern is: Is it really a choice when they are at so much risk for violence in dangerous Mexican border towns and they’re so vulnerable? They’re deciding between being exposed to risk and possible kidnappings and robbery in northern Mexico or going home and being exposed to similar crimes or worse, said Meyer. That’s not really an option for someone trying to save their life.

In recent weeks, hundreds of asylum-seeking migrants who were waiting in Mexico under a Trump administration policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, MPP, have decided to return home rather than continue waiting in Mexico, where migrants are often targets of criminal groups.

Under the MPP policy, which began in January in Tijuana, some migrants who make it across the U.S.-Mexico border are given a notice to appear in U.S. immigration court without undergoing a credible fear interview by U.S. asylum officers. Then they are sent back to Mexico to wait the months it can take for their court cases to be resolved.

The policy removes a previous asylum screening step in which migrants are interviewed to establish whether they have a credible fear of returning home. Gascon said his agency is now responsible for carefully interviewing all voluntary return participants to ensure they are not fearful and that they want to go back home and that they clearly understand the potential consequences.

We try to explain to people what can possibly occur and provide as much information as possible so people make an informed decision about the consequences, said Gascon, adding that if IOM determines a migrant is at risk in their home country, they assist them with seeking asylum in Mexico.

At least 347 people waiting in Mexico under the MPP program have returned to their home countries under the IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return program. Of the 347, IOM has only referred two migrants to seek asylum in Mexico, Gascon said.

One Honduran man told theUnion-Tribune last month that he was returning home to gather more evidence for his U.S. asylum case. He planned to bring the documents back to the border with him when he returned in January for his court appointment.

Gascon said he’s also heard of similar cases, of migrants wanting to return home to gather important documents relevant to their asylum case, but he said there’s no guarantee the migrants will be able to return through Mexico.

No mechanism has been put into place to guarantee when they leave southern Mexico and hand back over their humanitarian visa that they would have another migratory form given to them at a later date, said Gascon, who said his agency makes that clear to people.

We tell them there’s no guarantees there, so you may want to think about that, he said.

Gascon also said IOM tells people that returning home could hurt their chances of being granted U.S. asylum.

If you truly have a founded fear, it doesn’t seem like it would be productive for you to go back to the country, remain there for two months and then try to come back, said Gascon. We believe this is going to diminish the credibility of the asylum claim.

Gretchen Kuhner is director of the Institute for Women in Migration, a nonprofit organization based in Mexico City that advocates for the rights of women migrants.

Kuhner was in Tijuana on Thursday interviewing migrants in the MPP program. She said the people she spoke with who were considering going home were unaware they may not be able to come back to Mexico.

People have no idea. It’s a disaster, she said. If the Mexican migration officials on the southern border wanted to help, they would have discretion to issue another Forma Migratoria Multiple, but with the current policy of detain and deport, I doubt that would happen.

In early August, a Baja California representative of the National Institute of Migration, Mexico’s migration agency, touted the fact that people had returned to their country of origin to wait there for the date of their U.S. immigration appointment, since the court hearings are being scheduled several months out. At that time, Manuel Alfonso Marn Salazar gave no indication that U.S. asylum-seekers might not be able to get back into Mexico.

But last week, at a breakfast conference focusing on employment opportunities for Central American migrants in Tijuana, Marn said when migrants leave Mexico they lose their legal status and have to turn in their humanitarian visa, if they have one.

Fry writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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