On the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge on November 14, U.S. President Donald Trump’s new asylum policy had already begun to take effect. Laura, a mother of two from Nicaragua, stood on the pavement over the Rio Grande between Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas, and pulled a knit hat tight over her ears. The temperature had dropped below freezing the night before, and she and her children had been waiting there, suspended between two countries, for three days.
“They said that they were going to let us through but that it’s full inside,” she said as she looked toward the Customs and Border Protection agents standing ten feet ahead, in the center of the bridge, checking documents. A dozen adults and small children were bundled up, single-file, in front of her. It was gusty, and they had tied their blankets to the side of the bridge as a makeshift curtain. A Salvadoran woman in line next to Laura glanced at the city behind her, among Mexico’s most dangerous, and said, “No, no, we cannot go back.”
The principle of non-refoulement—no return—is the cornerstone of international refugee law: it prohibits the removal of asylum seekers to places where they are likely to be persecuted or tortured. Trump is apparently unperturbed by this prohibition. For months, ports of entry, like the one between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, have been a staging ground for his administration’s dismantling of the U.S. asylum system.
The right to seek asylum is also enshrined in U.S. federal law, regardless of how an individual enters the country. Asylum seekers arriving at the southern border tend to do it two ways. Either you walk across the port of entry and present yourself to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Or you cross the border between ports of entry, a misdemeanor, and turn yourself in to Border Patrol. Either way, you are entitled to an interview with an asylum officer. If you
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