An asylum-seeker from Honduras who presented himself at the southern border this summer seeking protection was forced to wait in Mexico until his court date in the United States. In case the government needed to contact him, a Border Patrol officer listed an address on his forms: “Facebook.”
The man, who asked to only be identified by his last name Gutierrez, told BuzzFeed News that shortly before he was sent back to Mexico along with his family, a Border Patrol agent asked him to confirm that a shortened version of his name was indeed the one he used on Facebook.
“I said ‘Yes, why?'” Gutierrez recalled. “The agent told me ‘Because that’s how we’re going to send you information about your court case.’ I thought that was strange, but what could I do?”
The form Gutierrez was given, called a Notice to Appear (NTA), is a charging document issued by the Department of Homeland Security that includes information on where an immigrant must present themselves for their first court hearing, and critically, should include an address where the applicant can be contacted if the time, date, or location of the hearing is changed.
If an immigrant fails to appear at court hearings they run the risk of being ordered deported in absentia by an immigration judge, which makes having accurate and detailed information on the forms crucial for asylum-seekers.
Gutierrez said he was never contacted about his case via Facebook and it’s unclear how DHS officials would contact an immigrant via social media.
A US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesperson did not respond to questions about why an agent would write “Facebook” as a known address, or whether the agency was using immigrants’ social media accounts as a way to inform them of any changes or updates to their hearings.
Attorneys and advocates working with asylum-seekers at the border, including those forced to wait in Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) said they’ve seen other notices with “Facebook” addresses, or no address at all.
“‘Facebook’ is the most egregious example of the Department of Homeland Security doing away with the aspect of proper notice,” Leidy Perez-Davis, policy counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association told BuzzFeed News. “Facebook is not an adequate way to serve an NTA.”
Perez-Davis said she’s heard from other attorneys who had viewed documents from immigrants with improper or inadequate addresses such as shelters, which are often already full or only allow immigrants to remain there for a few days. Asylum-seekers are often given initial US court dates months in the future.
“This is procedurally incorrect, but DHS has been doing it anyway because there hasn’t been oversight on insufficient NTAs,” Perez-Davis said.
In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that an immigrant’s notice to appear was invalid because it didn’t have the date or location of his scheduled court appearance. Attorneys have pointed to the ruling to argue that NTAs with inadequate information should also be invalid.
The Trump administration policy, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” has seen more than 47,000 asylum-seekers sent back to the country, straining local resources that help immigrants in the border communities. In addition to facing violence, kidnappings, and discrimination, some immigrants live on the streets and rely on donations to feed themselves.
If an immigrant receives an improperly addressed notice to appear, they can challenge whether it was legally serviced in court, Perez-Davis said, giving an immigrant the chance to reopen their case if they do not appear at their scheduled hearing and are ordered removed in their absence.
“It goes back to the issue of due process,” Perez-Davis said. “They can’t initiate proceedings without telling someone the details of the proceedings.”
Zoe Bowman, a law student who interned with Al Otro Lado, a binational border rights project and legal service provider, said she saw at least five immigrant NTAs that had “Facebook” listed as the known address. The first of which she saw in May or June of this year.
“It’s wild,” Bowman told BuzzFeed News. “Some wouldn’t have any addresses listed at all.”
The US asylum process is not set up for cases to be fought from Mexico, making the issue uncharted territory for the US government, immigrants, and attorneys, Bowman said.
“The issues with the NTAs is just one branch of that,” Bowman said. “People are having to make things up as they go along.”
Many of the other asylum-seekers returned to Mexico along with Gutierrez left for their home countries almost immediately. Gutierrez tried to wait for his court date, but only lasted three weeks in Tijuana. Facing a months-long wait for their first court hearing without money or space in a shelter, Gutierrez said he decided to go back to Honduras with his family.
“Tijuana is dangerous, I can’t be traveling with my family to the bridge at 4 a.m.,” Gutierrez said of the early hour he was expected to appear at a border crossing for his hearing. “We were in Mexico without money or a place to stay, I couldn’t make my daughter suffer through that.”