By Jose Gallego Espina and Lizbeth Diaz
SANDIEGO/TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – At least 60 Central American asylum seekers who were waiting in Mexico for their cases to be heard have been allowed to stay in the United States since Monday’s court ruling to halt a Trump administration policy of sending them back across the border.
The admissions occurred even though the U.S. District Court ruling does not come into effect until Friday, and despite the fact the ruling does not clearly apply to the hundreds of people returned to Mexico.
The number and outcomes of the cases were confirmed by a migrant attorney and a Reuters reporter who have attended court proceedings in San Diego this week.
The administration has indicated it will appeal the ruling, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether there has been a policy change.
But the stance of the DHS in the cases in a San Diego court shows the U.S. government is already allowing some migrants coming in from Mexico to stay in the United States as their individual cases come up.
A source at Mexico’s National Immigration Institute said on Thursday that around 1,400 people have been returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols policy (MPP) since January, most of them to the border town of Tijuana, where many said they feared dangerous conditions.
The policy was stepped up in the days before the ruling, Mexican government statistics show.
No-one appears to have been sent back under the policy since Tuesday, the day after the ruling, said the Mexican immigration source, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The court ruling clearly applied to the 11 plaintiffs in the civil liberties lawsuit as well as future asylum applicants, but the status of those already in Mexico was left unclear.
Not one of 20 asylum seekers who crossed the border from Tijuana on Wednesday for court hearings in San Diego was returned to Mexico, however. At one hearing, a Guatemalan man asked specifically whether he would have to go back to Tijuana.
“Definitely, he will not be returned to Mexico,” said Pamela Ataii, the DHS lawyer.
Another migrant told Judge Scott Simpson that he was scared to go back, to which Simpson responded: “You are lucky, because I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Luis Gonzalez, supervising immigration attorney with the Jewish Family Service of San Diego, who attended court on Tuesday, said he knew of 13 people who had hearings that day who had been released and one who was detained in the United States.
“Our understanding so far is that families under the MPP program are now being released into the United States after coming to court,” Gonzalez said.
El Salvadoran Gabriela Orellana, 26, and her two children were among those allowed to pursue their cases in the United States.
“I am here, thank God, in a shelter in San Diego,” she said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
President Donald Trump’s administration has argued that asylum seekers who are released into U.S. territory often do not show up at their hearings, a contention at odds with federal statistics which show that the majority do appear.
Carmen Rivera, who said she was fleeing gangs in El Salvador, had given up hope of receiving U.S. asylum after she was sent back to Mexico. She told Reuters she decided weeks ago not to attend her court hearing in San Diego.
After the ruling this week, however, she changed her mind.
“I´m excited to know that we have this opportunity, because to return to Mexico, to Tijuana, is very dangerous,” she said from a shelter close to the border fence in Mexico, where many migrants were camped out in tents.
“Thank God, things changed.”
(Additional reporting by Andrew Hay, writing by Kristina Cooke; Editing by Julie Marquis and Sonya Hepinstall)