CBP denies 4 disabled migrant children entry into South Texas, lawyer says

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — For a week, an immigration lawyer has been asking U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to allow four mentally disabled children to cross into the United States from Mexico at a South Texas port, but she said border officers have steadfastly refused them entry.

Lawyer Charlene D’Cruz, who works for the nonprofit organization Lawyers for Good Government, said this is a scenario that she is facing more and more often and she feels it is getting harder to convince officers to parole migrants. She told Border Report on Monday that she doesn’t understand why federal officials won’t adhere to their own U.S. guidelines, and laws, which specify that those with disabilities must be given special asylum considerations.

“We were on the bridge three days in a row, and they won’t let them cross,” said D’Cruz, who is based in Matamoros, Mexico, and provides legal aid mostly to migrants from the refugee tent encampment located near the Gateway International Bridge. “What is the difference between a blind woman being admitted and paroled two weeks ago and four very profoundly disabled children being rejected days in a row? They won’t tell me their basis for the denials.”

Since October, D’Cruz has successfully helped several of her migrant client families — including newborns, children with disabilities and adults who are blind, deaf, or LGBTQ — get across the bridge. To do so, she has convinced CBP officers that they are exempt from the Migrant Protection Protocols program, also known as “Remain in Mexico.” Since the Trump administration implemented this policy on the Southwest border last year, over 60,000 asylum-seekers have been sent back to Mexico to wait out their asylum proceedings.

Two newborn asylum-seekers are held in their parents’ arms on the Gateway International Bridge mid-point between Mexico and Brownsville, Texas, on Jan. 17. A visiting congressional delegation helped to cross the infants that day. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

MPP guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security state that “vulnerable populations may be excluded on a case-by-case basis.”

However, CBP officials stressed to Border Report that the words “may be” are key to understanding this provision, and do not guarantee that everyone who requests to be exempt will be granted parole in the United States. It is up to the discretion of CBP officials who have the option to refer the asylum-seekers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, or U.S. Health and Human Services.

What is the difference between a blind woman being admitted and paroled two weeks ago and four very profoundly disabled children being rejected days in a row? They won’t tell me their basis for the denials.”

Charlene D’Cruz of Lawyers for Good Government

“All claims of credible fear are handled on a case-by-case basis. Generally, those migrants not otherwise amenable to MPP are turned over to ICE-ERO or HHS-ORR depending on the specifics of their respective cases. Those who are amenable to MPP are returned to Mexico pending their next hearing. Unaccompanied alien children and aliens in expedited removal proceedings will not be subject to MPP. Other individuals from vulnerable populations may be excluded on a case-by-case basis,” a CBP official wrote in an email on Monday.

Lawyer Charlene D’Cruz, left, is seen on the Gateway International Bridge between Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas, on Jan. 17, asking a federal lawmaker for help crossing the little boy and several other disabled children. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

D’Cruz said these latest cases are different and she is troubled by what she perceives as rudeness from CBP officials. She accuses them of “snickering” and of “mocking” her as she has asked officials on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to allow the following to cross:

  • A 2-year-old Salvadorian boy who has Down syndrome and a heart condition.
  • A 10-year-old Guatemalan boy who has autism.
  • A 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan boy who is on the autism spectrum and only speaks K’iche.
  • A 7-year-old Honduran girl with lissencephaly – a rare disorder that causes the surface of the brain to appear smooth and causes mental impairment.

“There’s all sorts of mockery coming from CBP and that’s juvenile. We’re dealing with children with severe disabilities and we’re being mocked on the bridge by high-ranking CBP officers. That’s not what I pay my U.S. taxes for,” D’Cruz said.

CBP officials would not discuss these latest parole requests from D’Cruz, saying “CBP is precluded from discussing individual cases for privacy reasons.”

But concern for the children’s health reached U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Texas Democrat whose district includes Brownsville, who was reaching out to media to put pressure on officials to parole the children.

In January, Vela led 16 congressional Democrats who visited the Matamoros refugee camp. He then was among six members who pleaded with CBP officials to parole three newborn infants and several other children with disabilities with whom D’Cruz waited on the Gateway bridge to cross.

After their tour, the delegates saw D’Cruz and several families holding newborns bundled in blankets and with the children who were waiting mid-point on the bridge. Several of the female congressional delegates appeared visibly shocked that infants as young as 3 months old had been living in this filthy tent city, a stone’s throw from U.S. soil.

Read a Border Report story with video on the congressional tour.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, said after seeing a sick infant in the camp: “This is no way to treat families who are coming to the United States because they are seeking a better life; they are escaping violence where they don’t feel safe. We need to open our arms and open our hearts and open our country to these families.”

Vela has told Border Report that it is his belief that because these migrants are suffering in another country “out of sight, out of mind,” that most Americans and U.S. officials are unaware of their predicament, or any violations to humanitarian laws that are done to them.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, is seen leading a congressional delegation on Jan. 17 in Matamoros, Mexico, where 3,000 migrants live in a refugee camp. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Last year when the family separation crisis first ensued, the public outcry was so great that President Trump retracted the family separation policy. It’s been a little more difficult with MPP,” Vela said. “But what we’re witnessing here is even worse than with family separation. But for whatever reason word has not gotten out as it should.”

Bonamici suggested reinstating the Family Case Management Program. That Obama administration program, operated by ICE was shut down in April 2017, and had catered to special populations, like pregnant women, nursing mothers, families with very young children, those with mental health issues and victims of domestic violence. The pilot program relied on community-based supervision of families with vulnerabilities not compatible with detention. The case management strategy, which included migrant access to food, clothing, and medical services, was costly, however, and the program was shut down after a year.

D’Cruz said refusing to assist these special populations is a violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies.

She said that forcing families — especially children with severe sensory disorders — to wait on the bridge for hours at a time is physically taxing on them. And she is disturbed, she said, by what she perceives is growing animosity by some CBP officers toward migrants with special needs.

Border Report has reached out to CBP for comment on these allegations.

“I’ve done many of these cases and every single one of them is a fight but the level of scorn I felt this time was much more. In the past, they’ve treated me with professionalism,” D’Cruz said. “Vulnerable people should be an exception. So what gives?”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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