Dozens of people inside an immigration detention center in El Paso, Texas, remain jailed despite having been found by federal authorities to have a credible basis for their political asylum claims, according to an immigration activist being held inside the facility.
The activist, Santiago García-Leco, who works with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), told Fox News Latino in a telephone interview that he has encountered more than 60 people who told him that immigration officials determined they have a credible fear of persecution in their homeland.
The usual practice is to release such people pending completion of their asylum claim; however, García-Leco said, they remain detained.
An undocumented immigrant from Mexico who arrived in North Carolina at the age of 4, García-Leco, now 23, set out to get arrested last month by Border Patrol agents in order to be taken to the El Paso Processing Center.
“From the beginning, it’s what we had in mind,” said García-Leco, referring to NIYA and his arrest on Nov. 22. “We heard about people asking for asylum, passing credible fear [requirements], and not letting them out.”
NIYA is one of several advocacy groups that have turned to provocative actions to draw attention to flaws in the immigration system. Also on Tuesday, activists held a vigil outside a detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., to protest the nearly 2 million deportations that have occurred under President Barack Obama.
NIYA calls actions such as García-Leco at the El Paso Processing Center “infiltrations.” In 2012, the group coordinated the arrest and detention of immigrants who got sent to the Broward Detention Center in Florida. The NIYA infiltrators reported hundreds of cases of alleged abuse during their time there, which led to the release of many detainees.
“It is NIYA’s hope that Washington, D.C., will take a similar approach to our findings in El Paso,” a statement released by the group said.
NIYA also helped two groups of immigrants approach U.S.-Mexico border officials and ask for political asylum in two separate instances this year. They included people who came to the United States illegally when they were children, and then either were deported or left on their own.
The first group arrived in Arizona and was released from detention pending a decision on asylum claims. The second group crossed in Texas and were held at the detention center in El Paso. Six were deported, the others released.
The lawyer for both groups of immigrants, David Bennion, said immigration authorities were more likely to deny people in the second group credible fear approval, one of the reasons NIYA and García-Leco were interested in infiltrating the El Paso Detention Center.
Efforts to get a response from immigration officials about García-Leco's claims via e-mail and telephone were unsuccessful.
Proponents of stricter immigration enforcement say that a growing number of people from Mexico have been claiming asylum, and that they appear to have been coached about what to say in order to get credible fear approval – a process that could get them a work permit while their case is pending.
In 2010, John Morton, then the head of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, instructed his agency to prioritize enforcement by focusing on people who posed a danger to public safety and national security. Even so, there's been a hard-line approach this year by immigration authorities on political asylum petitioners in detention, said Eduardo Beckett, a Texas immigration attorney.
“There are people who lie, who try to abuse the system,” admitted Beckett, who’s had clients in the El Paso facility. “But there are ways to weed them out. Now there are mass denials – they are prolonging detention. They’re not respecting the spirit and intent of the new policy.”
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente