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It has become nearly impossible for migrants arriving at the southern border to get asylum in the U.S. The majority of cases are rejected by immigration judges. And even if these migrants do win protections in court, in some cases they are not allowed to stay in the country. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: For a moment, Jesus (ph) thought his ordeal was coming to an end. Three months after fleeing Venezuela, he got his chance to tell a judge how he and his mother escaped political persecution.
JESUS: (Through interpreter) The judge asked me three questions. What's your nationality? Why did you leave your country? Why can't you go back?
ROSE: Jesus asked us not to use his last name because he wants to protect relatives who are still in Venezuela. He doesn't speak English. He didn't have a lawyer at the time. Still, he felt like the judge really understood his story.
JESUS: (Through interpreter) I explained my case to him and he accepted my experience.
ROSE: The judge granted Jesus withholding of removal, a form of protection from deportation. In other words, he won, something that few migrants at the border can say these days. Jesus thought - finally, they'll let me into the U.S., where I can reunite with my family. But that's not what happened. He says the immigration officers seemed confused.
JESUS: (Through interpreter) I said to them, what's the next step? And they told me I have to go back to Mexico. I had no idea what was happening. No one explained it to me.
ROSE: More than 55,000 migrants have been forced to wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration court under the Trump administration program known as Remain in Mexico. It's one of several key changes that have made it extremely difficult to win asylum here. Just a tiny fraction of migrants in the program, less than 1%, have gotten protection. And sometimes even those who do win are sent back. Immigrant advocates have identified at least 17 cases. I asked Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, why.
MARK MORGAN: I don't think that should be happening.
ROSE: I described Jesus' situation to Morgan. And he said any migrant who wins their case should be allowed into the U.S.
MORGAN: If that's happened the way you describe that, then that's an anomaly. It's a mistake. But we'll take a look at that.
ROSE: That was at a press conference last month. Last week, Customs and Border Protection got back to us and said the agency can return migrants to Mexico while officials consider whether to appeal. But immigration lawyers disagree. And in this case, officials gave Jesus paperwork saying a judge had ordered him to appear in court, which wasn't true. The paperwork also listed a hearing date in November, but that date didn't appear on any court docket because it wasn't real.
KENNJI KIZUKA: They put a fake date on a piece of paper that says you have an upcoming hearing. And there was no hearing.
ROSE: Kennji Kizuka is a lawyer with the nonprofit Human Rights First. He took on Jesus' case after he'd already won in immigration court.
KIZUKA: The fact that the commissioner doesn't even know who's being sent to Mexico under the program is really troubling. It's that kind of lack of care and attention that is putting people's lives at risk.
ROSE: Customs and Border Protection denies using fake court dates. The Trump administration says it is trying to limit asylum by discouraging what it considers fraudulent claims. But Kizuka says the administration is turning away legitimate cases, too.
KIZUKA: The Trump administration is trying to basically frighten refugees away from the United States, to make it so scary and dangerous for them to come to the border and ask for help that they just give up and go away or never come to begin with.
ROSE: For Jesus, it was too dangerous to stay in Venezuela, a country that's been rocked by political upheaval. Jesus was a police officer. His superiors ordered him to arrest members of a political opposition party on bogus charges. He refused.
JESUS: (Through interpreter) They started to persecute me and my family. They killed my father. My mother was followed. She was threatened with a pistol and beatings.
ROSE: Jesus says he was jailed and beaten and that his father died after being refused treatment for a heart condition at a local government hospital. This is when he and his mother decided to leave.
JESUS: (Through interpreter) I already lost my father and didn't want to lose my mother, so I sold all my belongings in Venezuela.
ROSE: That was the beginning of a five-month saga for Jesus and his mother. They tried to put their names on a waiting list to request asylum at a port of entry in Texas. But they say they were told repeatedly by the keepers of that list in Mexico that it was full, so they crossed illegally and turned themselves over to the Border Patrol. Jesus' mother was detained in Louisiana, but Jesus was sent back to Mexico and released.
JESUS: (Through interpreter) As I was about to leave the Mexican immigration office, one of the officials told me with the way that you look, you won't go 50 steps without being kidnapped.
ROSE: Jesus dropped off in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where migrants are frequently targeted by cartels. He says he did witness kidnapping and violence and even narrowly avoided being kidnapped himself. Jesus managed to escape from a group of thugs at the bus station. He was on his way to meet his lawyer, Kennji Kizuka, in person for the first time. Together, they tried once again to get Jesus into the U.S. Kizuka showed immigration authorities the judge's order granting Jesus whose protection in the U.S., an order that the government never appealed.
KIZUKA: We were sent to, you know, different officers, and they told us that Jesus was not going to be allowed into the United States. One officer told me that by going back to Mexico, his deportation had already been carried out.
ROSE: Kizuka says he spent more than four hours arguing with officers at the border while the staff at Human Rights First called Homeland Security in Washington, members of Congress, anyone they could think of for help. Finally, without explanation, immigration officials relented and let Jesus in. He's now in Florida, reunited with his sister and mother. They're all fighting for full asylum protections, which would give them a path to citizenship in the U.S. Jesus says he hoped this would all be easier.
JESUS: (Through interpreter) I hoped the treatment would be warmer and more humane. But the officials are really harsh and insulting to migrants. And the system is really complicated.
ROSE: Still, Jesus is grateful to be here. He knows a lot of people from Venezuela who are still in Mexico waiting for their day in U.S. immigration court.
Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID GOODRICH'S "DUST OF MANY HORSES PART 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.