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By Julio-Cesar Chavez and Andy Sullivan
EL PASO, Texas/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - About 1% of the migrants sent to wait in Mexico pending the outcome of their U.S. asylum claims have successfully claimed that they would face danger if they had to stay in Mexico, a top U.S. immigration official said on Friday.
Those who prove they face danger in Mexico can be allowed to pursue their asylum claims while living in the United States. Reuters found similar numbers after analyzing immigration court data.
More than 15,000 migrants claiming asylum in the United States after crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, most of them Central Americans, have been sent back to Mexico to wait for their cases to be processed since January under the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), according to Mexican officials.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the MPP program was a priority for the agency as it tries to tackle a surge in asylum claims at the southern border.
Cuccinelli, a Trump ally who was appointed earlier this month, told reporters in El Paso that migrants who ultimately were not granted asylum were "jamming" up the system and "absorbing resources and facilities."
The policy of returning asylum seekers to Mexico has been criticized by asylum officers themselves. On Wednesday, their union filed a brief in a lawsuit challenging the policy, saying it was "contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation."
Cuccinelli said the union was "utterly in denial of reality."
Cuccinelli said that some U.S. border patrol agents had begun conducting initial screening interviews to determine whether migrants were eligible to apply for asylum and early indications from the pilot program were "positive."
Immigrant advocates have raised concerns that border patrol agents, who are primarily law enforcement officers, are not equipped to make high stakes decisions about the credibility of migrants' fears of return to their home countries. The screening interviews are usually conducted by USCIS asylum officers.
Earlier on Friday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told reporters in Washington that far fewer migrants had tried to enter the United States in June due to increased efforts by the Mexican government to stem the flow of people heading north from Central America.
McAleenan said he anticipated that the apprehension of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border could fall by as much as 25% from May's record levels.
(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez, Andy Sullivan and Kristina Cooke; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Rosalba O'Brien)