SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - A group of attorneys from across the U.S. volunteered their time in Mexico over the weekend to meet with nearly 200 Central American refugees who are seeking asylum in the U.S.
Jehan Laner Romero, an immigration attorney at Pangea Legal Services in San Francisco, said she and a colleague were among about 20 U.S. attorneys who traveled to Mexico to provide legal advice to the so-called caravan of migrants. The attorneys explained their rights to the refugees and helped them understand the process of applying for asylum in America.
The refugees are stuck in Tijuana, Mexico near the U.S. border in San Diego after they were turned away by crossing inspectors who said the crossing facility had reached capacity.
“I’m just outraged at the U.S. government,” Romero said. “We are supposed to be a beacon of hope for people around the world who are fleeing this type of violence and the fact that we’re denying them I think is really despicable.”
Romero said there is no actual basis for turning away people that are well within their rights to seek asylum. She called it a violation of U.S. and international human rights law.
“Everyone who is fleeing violence in their country has the right to seek asylum in the United States.” She said. “It’s an asylum officer who conducts the interview and determines whether or not you have a credible fear.”
Many of the families the attorneys spoke to are fleeing violence in Central America, mostly Honduras. The caravan is now camped out near the port of entry, stranded on the last leg of their journey, but Romero said the group is not giving up.
“It’s amazing to see the determination of everyone down there and all that they've suffered the strength that they still have together,” she said.
Caravan organizers said eight members of the group criticized by President Donald Trump that traveled from southern Mexico to the border city of Tijuana were allowed in to be interviewed by asylum officers, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not provide a number.
About 140 others were still waiting in Mexico to turn themselves in at San Diego's San Ysidro border crossing, the nation's busiest, said Alex Mensing, project organizer for Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which is leading the caravan.
Asylum-seekers are typically held up to three days at the border and turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If they pass initial screenings by asylum officers, they may be detained or released with ankle monitors while their cases wind through immigration court, which can take years.
Nearly 80 percent of asylum-seekers passed the initial screening from October through December, but few are likely to win asylum.
The denial rate for El Salvadorans seeking asylum was 79 percent from 2012 to 2017, according to asylum outcome information from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse. Hondurans were close behind with a 78 percent denial rate, followed Guatemalans at 75 percent.
rump administration officials have railed against what they call "legal loopholes" and "catch-and-release" policies that allow people seeking asylum to be freed while their cases are adjudicated. The president tweeted Monday that the caravan "shows how weak & ineffective U.S. immigration laws are."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pledged to send more immigration judges to the border if needed and threatened criminal prosecution. On Monday, the Justice Department said it filed illegal entry charges against 11 people identified as caravan members.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it processed hundreds of asylum-seekers in the previous week, many of them Mexican, which contributed to a bottleneck that led inspectors to turn away caravan members since they arrived late Sunday afternoon.
Asylum-seekers did not appear to be thrown off the by the delay.
Elin Orrellana, a 23-year-old pregnant woman from El Salvador, told the Associated Press she was fleeing the violent MS-13 street gang, a favorite target of both Sessions and Trump because of their brutal killings in communities in the United States. She said her older sister had been killed by the gang in El Salvador, so she is attempting to join other family members in the Kansas City area.
"Fighting on is worth it," she said.
Customs and Border Protection has room for about 300 people at the San Diego border crossing.
During a surge of Haitian arrivals at the San Diego crossing in 2016, Customs and Border Protection required people to wait more than five weeks in Mexico. Since then, smaller upticks of Mexican asylum-seekers have caused delays of several hours.
Associated Press reporter Elliott Spagat, videographer Gerardo Carrillo in Tijuana and reporter Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.