A pregnant Mexican woman suffering complications was told by immigration officers that they couldn’t process her family’s asylum claim at the US border on Saturday before a US senator intervened to persuade the officers to take the woman to a Texas hospital.
The senator and his staff decided to take the woman, her husband and 3-year-old son to a port of entry to make their asylum claim.
At the Paso del Norte Bridge linking Juárez and El Paso, the family approached two US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, presented their identification and said they wanted to request asylum.
They then heard the words that tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been told for more than a year at the US-Mexico border: “We’re full,” a CBP officer told them.
Mr Wyden, who had followed behind the family along with an entourage of staff members and friends from Oregon, then stepped forward and identified himself.
He told the officers that Mexicans are exempt from the “metering” programme CBP has used to strictly control the number of people allowed to request asylum at ports of entry.
He also told the officers the woman was late term in her pregnancy and suffering complications.
The officers called a supervisor, who arrived minutes later, and allowed the family to go to the port of entry to make their asylum claim.
Mr Wyden was clearly shaken by his two-day visit to the border, which included a tour of CBP holding cells and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility.
At the Juárez shelter, he met a 3-year-old boy who had stopped speaking after being held with his father by the US Border Patrol and then sent back to Mexico.
Mr Wyden spoke with families who were required to stay in Mexico for six months before their first US immigration court hearing.
“These policies that I’ve seen are not what America is about. And in fact what we saw with respect to the woman who is here today is just a blatant violation of US law,” Mr Wyden said, referring to the pregnant woman.
He said he believed the CBP agents would have turned away the family if he had not intervened, a sentiment echoed by Taylor Levy, an El Paso immigration attorney who took Mr Wyden and his staff to Juárez.
“I feel very confident that if the family had tried to present alone, they would not have been allowed in,” Ms Levy said.
A CBP spokesman said the officer would not have told the family that asylum processing was at capacity if they had explained that they were Mexican and that the mother was pregnant.
However, the family gave the officer, whose uniform identified his last name as Loya, a folder that contained their Mexican birth certificates and identification.
Shaw Drake, the policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Border Rights Centre in El Paso, Texas, said he asked the officer afterward if the family had identified themselves as Mexican asylum seekers, and the officer said they had.
Mr Wyden was also critical of a CBP officer who told the senator’s staff they were not allowed to take photos or video on the bridge.
The ACLU’s Mr Drake said the officer, whose name tag identified him as Castro, was wrong, and he told the staff they could continue to record.
“Certainly it looked like it had the potential for not going well. The ACLU folks talked about their legal rights to be able to record the [processing], and one of the officers said, ‘We have a situation’,” Mr Wyden said.
“So having done this for a while, those are the kinds of things that concern you and might suggest it’s not going well.”
Metering is used as a way to cap the number of people allowed to apply for asylum at ports of entry.
Mexicans are supposed to be exempt from metering under US asylum laws, Mr Drake said. He said he had seen CBP agents turning back Mexican asylum seekers before.
“If someone arrives on our border and expresses a fear of return to their home country, the government is barred from returning that person to their home country until a process has been followed to determine whether they have the right to remain in the United States as an asylee or a refugee,” he said.
“And so turning a Mexican away at the border, back into Mexico, is directly returning an asylum seeker to the country from which they’re fleeing persecution with no process to determine whether they have a fear of returning to that country.”
Mr Wyden met the family, who asked not to be identified, at a shelter that houses about 250 migrants in Juárez. They were sharing a small room with 11 other migrants.
They said they were from the Mexican state of Guerrero and wanted to seek asylum because they feared violence from drug cartels and their government allies.
“There’s a lot of insecurity, and the government is involved and corrupted with the cartels. There’s just no way to survive,” the father told Mr Wyden.
The family showed Mr Wyden their number for the metering list, which is kept by the Chihuahua State Population Council in Juárez.
The number 17,647 was handwritten on a slip of paper. More than 5,000 people were ahead of them on the list, meaning they faced a four- or five-month wait before being allowed to come to a US port of entry and seek asylum.
The family said they had not previously gone to a port of entry because they thought they had to get on the metering list.
Lauren Herbert, an Oregon paediatrician who accompanied Mr Wyden on the border tour, said she became concerned when talking to the mother.
“She had a previous diagnosis of preeclampsia, which already places her at high risk,” Herbert said after the family crossed the border.
“And then she described two days of leaking fluid,” which could indicate a ruptured membrane that threatened the life of mother and unborn child. “This is a high-risk pregnancy, and she needs to be seen by a doctor. Now.”
After Mr Wyden met the woman and her family, Ms Levy, the immigration attorney, and Mr Drake urged the senator to push CBP to get the woman to a hospital as soon as possible.
“The US government keeps saying that they don’t put Mexicans on the metering list and that Mexicans will always be accepted because they’re fleeing Mexico,” Ms Levy said. She suggested Mr Wyden approach the border officers along with an ACLU representative and lawyers.
“That’s what we’re going to do,” Mr Wyden said.
About an hour later, the family was undergoing initial processing by CBP to begin their asylum claim. CBP officials told Mr Wyden that the mother would quickly be taken to a hospital for evaluation. Their status was not clear on Saturday night.
Ian Philabaum, programme director for the legal group Innovation Law Lab who accompanied the senator on his two-day border tour, said the family’s plight would have been much different without Mr Wyden’s assistance.
“If not for the presence of a US senator, another asylum-seeker would have been sent back to dangerous conditions in Mexico, the same country she is fleeing, and despite the fact that she is pregnant and in dire need of medical attention,” he said..