January 27, 2022


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‘Remain in Mexico’ program begins in El Paso amid skepticism from advocates

6 min read

By and Arelis R. Hernández,

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — More than 30 migrants had their asylum cases processed in El Paso this week and are expected to be transported back to Mexico as part of the resumption of a Trump-era program that requires asylum seekers to wait outside U.S. territory while their claims are processed.

The program, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, was reinstated after the Biden administration and Mexican government re ached a deal earlier this month. Border-crossing migrants from countries in the Western Hemisphere can now begin the legal process for asylum in the United States but must return to Mexico while they await the adjudication of their claims, which can take months.

President Biden ended MPP earlier this year, allowing thousands of asylum seekers in high-crime areas of northern Mexico to pursue their cases within U.S. borders. But Republicans in Texas and Missouri sued, and a federal judge ordered the administration to restart it with Mexico’s consent, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court.

Biden’s Department of Homeland Security has said security and legal enhancements will distinguish its program from that of the Trump administration, which resulted in a backlog in cases and led to the creation of migrant refugee camps along the U.S.-Mexico border.

At a briefing earlier this month, a DHS official told reporters “Mexico has demanded a number of humanitarian improvements as conditions of agreeing to accept enrollees,” including guarantees that asylum seekers will have access to legal counsel and that their humanitarian claims will be processed within six months.

“These are improvements we agree with,” added the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity under rules set by DHS. Asylum seekers placed in the MPP program will also be offered a coronavirus vaccine while in the United States.

But the administration also continues to argue that MPP is “imposing substantial and unjustifiable human costs,” according to a refiled legal memo to terminate the program.

It’s a pattern of perplexing contradiction, immigration advocates say.

“Yet again, we see the Biden administration breaking its own campaign promises and falling far afield from where they promised to be on border and immigration policy,” said Shaw Drake, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union Border Rights Center in El Paso. “The reimplementation of MPP by this administration is going well beyond what is required of them by court order.”

[Marooned in Matamoros: One asylum-seeker’s experience under MPP]

Two of the people who entered El Paso on Monday to begin their legal quest for asylum returned to Ciudad Juárez on Wednesday morning — a day later than expected after the process hit a temporary snag and coordination issues, officials said.

Both declined to be interviewed.

The rest remain in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody in El Paso and it is not clear when they might be sent back.

The United States and Mexico have enlisted the help of nongovernmental and humanitarian organizations to smooth out coordination and provide shelter and legal help for the asylum seekers.

In Ciudad Juárez, shelters are building capacity in anticipation of growing numbers of migrants. The municipal-run Kiki Romero shelter expects 30 to 35 MPP enrollees every day of the week to rotate into their converted gymnasium, outfitted with metal bunk beds for up to 200 people, according to human rights director Santiago Gonzalez Reyes.

But advocates said this week they are skeptical that MPP can operate any better than it did under the previous administration. Father Hector Trejo, who directs two Ciudad Juárez shelters, said he is doubtful the new MPP offers anything more than a mirage of hope.

The first time MPP was implemented, in 2019, asylum seekers stuck in Mexico struggled to find housing, leading to the formation of a makeshift refugee camp on the country’s northern border.

The Mexican government also struggled to keep migrants safe, particularly those returned to dangerous cities in the state of Tamaulipas. Human Rights First, a New York-based nonprofit organization, recorded at least 1,544 “violent attacks” against migrants returned to Mexico.

Mexican officials rarely spoke critically of the policy’s first iteration in public. Some privately suggested that the program was successful in deterring migration.

But as the second iteration of MPP neared under Biden, the Mexican government raised a number of humanitarian concerns about migrants who would be processed under the policy, ranging from vaccine access to housing and security.

After the U.S. addressed many of those concerns, the Mexican foreign ministry released a statement last week saying it would allow asylum seekers to wait in Mexico “for humanitarian reasons and on a temporary basis.”

The United Nations’ International Office of Migration in Mexico is assisting both governments to try to mitigate some of MPP’s negative impacts. It is offering safe transport for migrants to and from court hearings and helping shelters improve capacity.

It is also pushing Mexico to provide migrants with documents and ID numbers that would allow them to work legally, open bank accounts and access services while they wait.

“We’ve been very clear that MPP should end and it is not a positive measure or policy,” said deputy chief of mission Jeremy MacGillivray. “But we are confident there is a genuine desire to make living conditions better for migrants and will be monitoring it closely.”

[Biden to restart ‘Remain in Mexico]

Still, critics of the policy warn that Mexico is again participating in controversial U.S. deterrence measures with no guarantees migrants will be protected.

“Mexico once again is assuming a great deal of the costs and the risks of this irregular program which violates many rights inscribed in U.S. and international law, as well as Mexico’s own laws,” said Tonatiuh Guillén López, Mexico’s former immigration chief.

“The supposed humanitarian adjustments aren’t clear and haven’t materialized, and they most likely won’t comply with the needs of shelter, protection, or access to health care and legal assistance,” Guillén added.

Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher and policy analyst at Human Rights First, said he worries commitments to migrant security and rapid case resolution will be abandoned as the numbers of asylum seekers climb.

“Unfortunately, the experience from the last implementation was that promises weren’t fulfilled, services that were supposed to be provided never happened,” he said. “I would worry that the same thing is going to happen again.”

Advocates like Hannah Hollandbyrd of El Paso-based Hope Border Institute said they will be watching how the improvements the Biden administration touted in court filings will play out in reality.

DHS officials said U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers will proactively ask migrants if they fear returning to Mexico — a major distinction from the Trump-era version when the question wasn’t posed. If they say yes, asylum seekers have at least 24 hours to consult with counsel and explain any future threats they may face.

[Migrants missed court dates because of kidnappings]

While MPP may open a window for some, its enrollees represent a fraction of would-be asylum seekers. Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. has expelled more than 1.4 million migrants under Title 42, a public health law.

Expulsion flights carrying Central Americans land nearly every day in southern Mexico, according to Witness at the Border, an advocacy group that tracks deportation flights. Those who are deported are generally not given a chance to ask for asylum.

The limited options for migrants to pursue asylum or humanitarian relief pushes people to seek out organized crime to make repeated crossings for a random chance, advocates said.

“That is a fairly absurd border management policy because it encourages people to continue to play the lottery and keep trying,” immigration attorney Taylor Levy said.

Nick Miroff in Washington contributed to this report.

The Washington Post