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Pregnant Women Among Asylum Seekers Sent To Mexico To Wait For Immigration Court

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Trump administration has been sending tens of thousands of asylum seekers at the southern border back to Mexico to await their day in U.S. immigration court. This includes a number of pregnant women. Reynaldo Leanos Jr. of Texas Public Radio tells us one woman's story.

REYNALDO LEANOS JR, BYLINE: On the Mexican side of the international bridge that leads to Brownsville, Texas, Jodi Goodwin prepares her client, an asylum seeker named Yulisa, for what happens next.

JODI GOODWIN: (Speaking Spanish).

LEANOS JR: Goodwin warns her clients that things may get tense. Then they walk halfway across the bridge and talk to the officer stationed there. Goodwin tells them that they need to let Yulisa Goodwin into the U.S. She's 7 1/2 months pregnant.

GOODWIN: One of the officers just was shaking his head. And the other one - I just asked him to see a supervisor because they're not going to be able to make a decision, you know, here on the bridge. We'll see what he says.

LEANOS JR: When an officer returns, he asks to see Yulisa's sonogram and other identification. Goodwin shows him the documents and demands to see a supervisor, but they are told Yulisa must stay in Mexico. Under the Remain In Mexico program, formerly known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, more than 48,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico to wait for their asylum hearings.

Rochelle Garza, an attorney with the ACLU, says vulnerable populations are supposed to be excluded.

ROCHELLE GARZA: Pregnant women in particular should not be in this program because they are especially vulnerable.

LEANOS JR: The ACLU has asked the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security to investigate and for the agency to stop turning away pregnant asylum seekers. Garza says at least 18 women have been sent to dangerous Mexican border towns, where they have very little food, shelter and health care.

GARZA: They don't have running water. They don't have access to showers. A number of the women that we spoke with also have other children with them. So that's also a huge challenge for them, to take care of their children and to maintain their health throughout their pregnancy.

LEANOS JR: One asylum seeker was 8 1/2 months pregnant. She told the ACLU that U.S. immigration authorities took her to a hospital to stop the contractions before she was returned to Mexico. Another woman said her water broke the same day she was sent back. She told the ACLU that she didn't report her labor pains for fear her child would be taken from her.

Yulisa was also cited in the complaint. I met up with her again near the bridge last month just before her first asylum hearing in the U.S. She fled Peru after getting death threats from the father of her child and asked that we not use her last name.

YULISA: (Through interpreter) I think they're going to send me back like they've been doing.

LEANOS JR: She's been in Mexico for more than two months and isn't feeling hopeful. She's heard horror stories from the other women.

YULISA: (Through interpreter) There have already been several pregnant women who have tried to enter. And instead of helping, they gave them a longer court date.

LEANOS JR: Yulisa believes U.S. officials don't want these women to give birth in America, where the children would get automatic citizenship. In an email statement, Homeland Security says officers do take physical and mental health into consideration when deciding who to send back to Mexico. But they don't exclude all pregnant women because doing so could mean officers having to perform invasive pregnancy tests on every female asylum seeker.

Yulisa's asylum hearing takes place in a tent courtroom. Her attorney, Jodi Goodwin, leaves the facility after a few hours surprised and relieved.

GOODWIN: They paroled Yulisa, so she can continue her court proceedings here in the United States. She'll no longer be in danger in Mexico.

LEANOS JR: Goodwin says it was the Mexican government that refused to receive Yulisa because of her late-term pregnancy.

GOODWIN: I want to stress that that was not any change on the part of the U.S. government. It was a humanitarian action and change on the part of the Mexican government.

LEANOS JR: Yulisa plans to stay with a relative in Utah until her next hearing. Her baby is due any day now.

For NPR News, I'm Reynaldo Leanos Jr. in Brownsville.

(SOUNDBITE OF KMB'S "FLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.