The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has started returning to Mexico new asylum seekers who have arrived at the southern border, rather than allowing them to wait in the U.S. while their cases are adjudicated.
Senior DHS officials told reporters Friday that they had begun the policy, which they call "Migrant Protection Protocols," this week by returning a dozen individuals.
The officials said they planned to increase the number of returnees soon.
"We will give the individual a notice and a court date, and let them know when to return," one official said of the process during a call with reporters. "We'll give them a list of pro bono legal advisers ... [and] let Mexican immigration know. At some point, they will return back to their point of entry" for a court hearing.
The official added that Customs and Border Protection does have an exclusion list of those who are not subject to the new process.
The officials said they were focusing on people from the Northern Triangle countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The policy, described by DHS as unilateral, is starting at California's San Ysidro port of entry, across from the Mexican city of Tijuana. "Right now, we are focused on San Ysidro to get things running," an official said.
During a visit this week by a delegation from human rights watchdog Amnesty International to San Diego, Tijuana, El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, this week, Margaret Huang, executive director of the organization's U.S. office, said the "remain in Mexico" policy has left migrants "confused and overwhelmed."
Details of the process were not made clear to the asylum seekers as the new policy went into effect, she said on a call Thursday with reporters.
"What we have found is chaos," Huang added.
Colm O'Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, likened the new protocol to a deal struck between Europe and Turkey that shut down a safer route for migrants and pushed travelers to make the more dangerous crossing from Libya.
"We saw the same thing in the U.S. this week," O'Gorman said. "The [U.S.] administration is creating a market for the criminal gangs they decry; what we will see are increasing numbers of people … being forced to cross the border irregularly."
Mexico's National Immigration Institute commissioner, Tonatiuh Guillen, said Tuesday that Mexico would take returnees from only a single border crossing, the El Chaparral crossing at San Ysidro.
Ports of entry may have multiple separate crossings, often specifying use for vehicles or pedestrians.
"There are several technical-level questions — the specific ports of entry where this measure would apply, the timeline of the process, among others — that our two governments need to address to guarantee an adequate implementation of this unilateral policy," spokesman for the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, Roberto Velasco Alvarez, wrote in a Monday opinion piece in The Washington Post.
The DHS officials noted "conflicting information coming from the Mexican government," but added, "Our intent is to scale up across the border ... and we are confident we will be able to do so."
The DHS officials said the new return policy was necessitated by a change in the population presenting itself at the border, claiming that asylum seekers increasingly are families with children. "Our system is not built to deal with this group," an official said, adding that this new group is being exploited by traffickers and others.
But the Trump administration is not the first to face changing demographics at the border. In 2014, during President Barack Obama's second term, the U.S. saw a massive spike in so-called "family units." Federal officials and local charities scrambled to accommodate the changing demographics and provide shelter to mothers and children.
Mexico says it will take only those returned asylum seekers who are between the ages of 18 and 60.
"In the interest of protecting vulnerable migrants, unaccompanied children and those in poor health conditions will not be accepted into our territory from the United States," Alvarez wrote.
But the DHS officials were clear that while this week's returnees have not included children, children are not excluded from the U.S. policy.
"Very soon we will be moving towards families … this is a way to ensure families stay together," an official said.
The official added that children who appeared to be at risk would not be returned even if the rest of their families were.
When a reporter asked if the U.S. could continue the migrant policy without Mexico's cooperation, the official responded, "I don't expect Mexico will change its posture. We will not return individuals to a place that is not hospitable."
The official added, "At the end of the day, we have an understanding that's working right now."