The lies they tell

DHS may not be lying about the death of Jakelin Caal. But if they are, no one should be surprised.

Migrants wait on the Paso Del Norte bridge in June.

Whether or not the Department of Homeland Security lied about the death of Jakelin Caal is now at the center of this case. DHS’ story about her death has been all over the place—when they choose to tell the story at all, that is. The agency didn’t tell Congress about Caal until after the Washington Post broke the story and hasn’t responded in any meaningful way to myself or other reporters regarding the circumstances preceding her death.

Her father, Nery, says he never told Border Patrol agents that his daughter hadn’t been able to eat or drink for several day as DHS originally said. And contrary to what DHS claims—that she was offered water by border agents after being apprehended—Nery said his daughter went without water for eight hours while waiting for a bus to take her to the Lordsburg Border Patrol Station, an hour and a half away. Attorneys representing the Caal family said yesterday there was “no water” at the port of entry in which Nery and his daughter were held. Instead, she was given cookies.

If DHS is lying about Caal’s death it won’t come as a surprise because the agency lies all the time. They’re the enforcement arm of an administration that lies and exaggerates about immigration on a daily basis. Last night, I published a story that touches on another of the Trump administration’s and DHS’ boldest lies: that they aren’t purposely trying to prevent migrants from applying for asylum.

Not only did DHS know that a November executive order signed by Trump would result in more migrants showing up at ports of entry, government lawyers speaking for the agency predicted that the order would slow wait times at ports of entry unless more resources were provided. Those resources, of course, are nowhere to be found.

Lawyers speaking on behalf of the departments of Homeland Security and Justice mention this multiple times in a brief on the order that was put online the day it was issued, November 8.

I’ve been documenting this practice of obstructing asylum-seekers since June, when I travelled to El Paso and first learned of the practice of “turnbacks.” Turnbacks have since become a generic term for the array of means by which border agents tell migrants they can’t apply for asylum. When I first learned of the practice and to this day, turnbacks in El Paso and elsewhere along the border generally mean agents telling asylum-seekers that there’s “no room” at holding facilities on the U.S. side of ports of entry, often adding that the migrants should try again tomorrow. In many cases, this can go on for days, weeks and months. The phrase “no room” is a popular one, according to migrants and advocates I’ve spoken to. But agents have employed a more direct—and certainly illegal, not to mention immoral—phrase by telling migrants they can’t exercise their rights of applying for asylum: the United States isn’t “giving asylum anymore.”

This is a lie whenever and wherever it is uttered. Yet it has been said by agents—whether from Custom and Border Protection or Border Patrol—across the southern border at ports of entry from California to Texas, according to a study released earlier this month.

The University of Texas at Austin found that turnback practices like distortions about capacity at holding facilities or lies about the U.S. no longer accepting asylum-seekers began in earnest in the summer of 2017. In May, 2018—a few months into when the DOJ actually implemented its zero tolerance prosecution policy in El Paso and elsewhere—turnback practices were in place across the entirety of the southern border.

It’s often a game that’s played by stationing two agents at the actual border line, where they stop people and ask for their paperwork as opposed to allowing them to enter U.S. territory and show their papers at the actual port of entry. In the case of El Paso, Border Patrol or CBP agents are stationed at the apex of the Paso Del Norte bridge where they screen passersby based on their likelihood of claiming asylum—often singling out by skin color: the darker and more indigenous migrants look, the more likely they are to be from Central American countries where many asylum-seekers come from. Agents then ask them for their papers, often times employing turnback practices to prevent them from claiming asylum then and there.

The agents stand at the border line because, according to U.S. and international law, anyone who steps foot into American territory and claims asylum—simply saying asilo—must be processed for that claim. No entry into the U.S., no asylum claim. It’s as simple as that.

And wouldn’t you know it, a lot of times there just isn’t room.

This is all probably illegal—and immigrant advocacy groups and other watchdogs have been on it, filing class action lawsuits on behalf of migrants who say they were denied their rightful opportunity to apply for asylum. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a civil complaint on behalf of migrants seeking asylum against DHS Secretary Kirsten Nielsen that claims agents at ports of entry “used lies, threats, intimidation, coercion, verbal abuse, and physical force to block their access to U.S. ports of entry.”

But this is also all ongoing. Border agents are, right now, likely engaging in these practices, which will continue until someone in Congress decides to do something about it.