By Yeganeh Torbati and Jose Gallego Espina
WASHINGTON/SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The Trump administration is intensifying measures to curb the flow of Central American asylum seekers crossing into the United States from Mexico, officials said on Monday, including sending more people back to Mexico to wait for their asylum claims to be heard by U.S. courts.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency will speed up the reassignment of 750 officers to parts of the border dealing with the largest numbers of immigrants, a shift the administration first announced last week.
U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to close the border if Mexico does not stop a surge of people, often travelling as families from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Closing the border would potentially disrupt millions of legal border crossings and billions of dollars in trade.
One policy put in place earlier this year to return asylum seekers to Mexico, dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), will be "immediately" expanded by "hundreds of additional migrants per day above current rates," Nielsen said in a statement on Monday.
The policy is already being challenged in court by civil rights groups. As of March 26, approximately 370 migrants had been returned to Mexico since the programme began in late January, a Mexican official said last week.
Asked about the numbers, a DHS spokeswoman declined to confirm them and said the policy "is still in the early stages of implementation."
Critics of the administration say the policy hampers asylum cases, by making it far more difficult for those immigrants to obtain legal assistance. People who have been returned to Mexico to wait are struggling to find attorneys and receive notice of their proceedings in U.S. courts, rights advocates said.
Trump administration officials say the MPP is a way to address the failings of the current system, which they claim encourages illegal immigration. Families that claim asylum are often released into the United States because of limits on how long children can be held in detention, allowing them to stay for years while their cases move through a backlogged immigration court system even though many claims are ultimately denied.
The administration is hoping policies of deterrence will reduce the number of people who turn themselves in to U.S. border agents, overwhelming the capacity of processing centres along the southern border.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday that Mexico will help to regulate the flow of Central Americans passing through its territory to the United States. He said the root causes behind the phenomenon, which include violence and poverty in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, must be tackled.
In a move Democrats and Republicans in Congress have said would be counterproductive, the U.S. State Department cut aid to the three countries after Trump accused them of having "set up" migrant caravans and sending them north.
Last week, a San Diego immigration judge heard from the first Central American families that were returned to Mexico under the MPP policy. The judge, Scott Simpson, had the previous week heard claims from single adults who had been returned, and both times expressed concerns over how the protocol is working.
Of four families in court on Wednesday, just one had an attorney.
But Yanira Esmeralda Chavez, a Salvadoran fruit seller, accompanied by her three boys did not have a lawyer as she made her case to Simpson. The family had been staying at a shelter in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, and asked to remain in the United States because they feared being sent back to Mexico.
"I called the numbers on the attorney list that they provided me, but they said they cannot take my case because I am in Tijuana," Chavez said in the hearing. "It would be better if I stay in the U.S., where I have family members."
Because she expressed fear of return, Simpson said Chavez and her children would be referred to a U.S. asylum officer, who would assess their claims. The outcome of that request was not known, but in prior cases, two people who had expressed similar fears were nevertheless returned to Mexico.
Asylum seekers typically undergo what is known as an interview to assess their "credible fear" of returning to their home country. But the standard of proof for a "reasonable fear" of being returned to Mexico under the MPP is much stiffer.
Simpson gave Chavez two more months to obtain an attorney, and said that her family in the United States could perhaps help her find a lawyer.
Throughout the day, Simpson expressed his concerns about the policy, saying he was "skeptical" about migrants getting their notices to appear in court, given the court does not have proper addresses for those returned to Mexico.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued the Trump administration over the policy, claiming it violates U.S. law.
But following a March 22 hearing on whether to halt the programme, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco ordered both sides to submit further briefing on the question of whether or not the California court has jurisdiction over the case, likely prolonging any decision on the policy.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Jose Gallego Espina; additional reporting by Dave Graham and Sharay Angulo in Mexico City; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Grant McCool)