TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Juan Carlos Perla says he spent his first night in the U.S. in a cold immigration cell with 21 others at the nation’s busiest border crossing. Fluorescent lights were always on in the basement holding area. Space was so tight that he laid his sleeping mat next to a toilet.
The 36-year-old from El Salvador soon reunited with his wife and three sons, ages 6, 4 and 10 months, who were in another cell, and the family returned to Tijuana, Mexico, to await asylum hearings in San Diego. They were one of the first families to contend with a radical U.S. policy shift that makes asylum seekers stay in Mexico while their cases wind through immigration courts. Looking rattled hours later, Perla said he would skip his court date and instead settle in Mexico.
“Our fear is that we lose our case and get deported” back to El Salvador, Perla said. “That’s suicide for me, my wife and my children.”
Perla told a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer that he and his family abandoned their small bakery in the Salvadoran capital after he missed a monthly extortion payment to the 18th Street gang. They beat him and threatened to kill him and his family if he failed to pay the next installment, according to an interview transcript.
If his family’s experience is a sign, the policy may be having its intended effect of discouraging asylum claims, which have helped fuel a court backlog of more than 800,000 cases and forced people to wait years for a ruling. Trump administration officials say they want to deter weak claims, freeing up judges to consider more deserving cases.
A federal judge in San Francisco has scheduled a March 22 hearing to consider a request by advocacy groups to halt the practice.
Change is being introduced slowly — 240 people were returned to Tijuana from San Diego in the first six weeks. The administration expanded its “Migrant Protection Protocols” strategy on Monday to a second border crossing, in Calexico, California, and officials say the practice will grow along the entire border.