In January 2019, the Trump administration implemented the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” also known as “Remain in Mexico,” which forces most Spanish-speaking asylum seekers to be briefly screened at the border and then returned to Mexico to wait for their court date. This applies to nearly all asylum applicants, whether they are at a port of entry or enter the United States between ports of entry. So far, some 40,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico to wait, or kept there awaiting their first try.
We went to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez to help asylum seekers caught in this program and it was immediately clear: MPP is designed to give the appearance of due process — a day in court where they can ask for asylum — but in reality due process is nowhere to be found.
Fleeing kidnappings and rape
In Juarez, they’re dropped off at a facility on the Mexico side of the Paso del Norte bridge and then simply released onto the street. They lean on the assistance of non-profit and faith-based groups, but there are a finite number of shelters. We spent four days drafting asylum applications with families who had no other access to attorneys. We sat, sometimes on the floor and sometimes in the dark as power faltered, listening to the horrific tales of the dangers they fled in Central America and the danger they faced in Mexico.
It is nearly impossible for these families to find an attorney. Since they are not permitted to stay in the United States, any attorney willing to take these cases would have to prepare an asylum case entirely by phone or enter Juarez to meet with clients in conditions that lack space for confidential discussions and any guarantee of safety. According to a recent Syracuse University study, only 1.3% of asylum applicants in the MPP program have attorneys.
Many of the asylum seekers we met with had been kidnapped (some had been kidnapped multiple times) or had managed to escape attempted kidnappings as cartels, gangs, and corrupt government officials easily target them. Multiple women have reported being sexually assaulted and raped upon their return to Mexico. Some of the families stated they had even seen their kidnappers circling the neighborhood. They now refuse to leave the shelter, except for their court dates, some of which are set three to four months into the future. This court date is the first time they have an opportunity to ask for an interview with an asylum officer.
Life or death obstacle course
Things are not much better when they finally arrive in immigration court in El Paso. Immigration court hearings are open to the public, but the government has limited the number of observers, making transparency a joke. We refused to take no for an answer and were able to observe hearings on the MPP docket.
Of 93 individuals listed for hearings on the first docket, only five were able to present themselves at the port of entry successfully and get into court. Four others had tried but Customs and Border Protection had deemed them “medically inadmissible.” The five that appeared in court beat the odds: they had survived three months in Mexico and found their own food and shelter, transported themselves to the port of entry in Juarez, avoided kidnapping on the way to court, got through the Mexican immigration side, and presented themselves to CBP at the bridge over the Rio Grande sometime around 4 a.m. for their 1 p.m. hearing.
The remaining 84 people were ordered removed from the United States for failing to appear in court without regard to the endless obstacles they faced. One man was with his 12-year-old daughter. A grandmother cried as she told the judge she had entered the United States with her daughter and three grandchildren and had been separated from them. Another man said he had been separated from his partner and his partner hadn’t come back from his hearing the previous day — was his partner okay?
Unanswered questions, no way out
The judge asked if any of the individuals had fears of returning to Mexico and all five raised their hands. Not surprising. In 2018, Juarez was one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with 1,247 murders. The judge assured all of the individuals that the ICE attorney in the room would make sure they were screened for their fear of returning to Mexico, but didn’t mention that nearly everyone is sent back to Mexico at the end of this screening.
It is virtually impossible to be removed from this program, even if you have been kidnapped or sexually assaulted in Mexico. Applicants requesting this interview are not allowed to have attorneys represent them. Denying someone access to counsel in these circumstances is illegal, by the way.
Because none of the applicants had legal representation, they had many questions: why weren’t they staying in the United States? Could the immigration judge release them? Were they eligible for a bond? Could they have a work permit? When was the next hearing? Why couldn’t they be reunited with their family members? Most of their questions went unanswered.
'Panic!' 'Have a good day.'
We ventured to another courtroom with about 20 immigrants, none represented by an attorney. All were women. Hearings in that courtroom took less than 2 minutes each (one hearing was as short as 36 seconds) and the asylum process was not explained at all. They were asked if they wanted time to find an attorney. If they said yes, the judge barked a date and time like “September 12th at 8:30 a.m. Do you understand?” but didn’t explain further. Many of the applicants asked if their cases could be combined with their spouse and the judge merely told them to talk to the government. At the end of each “hearing,” the applicants politely thanked the judge.
One woman told the judge she had been assaulted in Juarez and had proof — she began to get emotional and she asked to not be sent back to Mexico. She was clearly not understanding the process and as it became clear to her the judge did not care, she said “panic!” in Spanish.
The immigration judge responded, “Thank you and have a good day.” Case closed — for now.
Christina Brown, an immigration attorney in Denver, Colorado, is founder and executive director of the Colorado Asylum Center and a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Asylum Committee. Kara Lynum is an immigration attorney in St Paul, Minnesota. Follow them on Twitter: @cbrownimmlaw and @karalynum
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Asylum seekers in Mexico: Safety, lawyers and due process hard to find