In Jan. 2019, the Trump administration launched the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, which make asylum seekers wait in Mexico until a U.S. immigration judge decides their case. At the time, officials said the policy would help weed out weak or fraudulent claims, but it came under fire for forcing many migrants into dangerous and squalid living conditions, far from legal counsel.
President Joe Biden suspended the policy on his first day in office. The U.S. government will no longer enroll people in the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program.
But questions remain about what will happen to the thousands of migrants who are already in the program, waiting in makeshift tent camps and shelters along the border for their day in U.S. immigration court. Their hearings have been postponed indefinitely, during the coronavirus pandemic.
That uncertainty is a huge source of anxiety for Carlo, a Brazilian asylum seeker who has been living at a cramped shelter in Ciudad Juárez for nearly a year. KERA has been following Carlo and his two young daughters as they navigate life under MPP. He asked KERA not to use his full name, because he is still in asylum proceedings.
Carlo spent election night and the days after glued to the communal TV at the shelter. As more and more states were called for Biden, he recalled in Portuguese, people became emotional. Some cried. Others shouted with joy.
Carlo pulled his daughters in close.
“Now things get better for us,” he said. “It was worth it to wait here.”
He knew Biden had vowed to end “Remain in Mexico” on the campaign trail, and hoped the newly-elected president would keep his word.
Biden took a step in that direction on Inauguration Day by suspending the program, but did not address what will happen to asylum seekers who are currently in the program.
“All current MPP participants should remain where they are, pending further information from U.S. government officials,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.
“There’s expectation, and there’s apprehension,” Carlo said. “Nothing’s been resolved.”
‘The task isn’t done’
“The administration clearly knows that this is such an issue that…they started to deal with MPP with a day one executive order,” said Andrew Geibel, policy council for HIAS, a refugee resettlement group that also works with asylum seekers. “However, obviously the task isn’t done.”
Of the more than 65,000 people who were put in MPP, some 20,000 still have open cases. Most of the others already received a decision, gave up their case or did not show up for a hearing and were ordered deported in absentia. (“A lot of people aren’t able to make their court dates for reasons that are not their fault,” Geibel noted. “For example, I’ve heard of people being kidnapped on the way to their case.”)
Geibel and other advocates have called for government officials to allow people in MPP into the U.S., to wait out their asylum proceedings with family members or other sponsors.
HIAS recently released a report with recommendations for how the Biden administration could unwind “Remain in Mexico,” based on input from legal service organizations that work along the southern border.
The group lays out a “two-tier process” for admitting asylum seekers in MPP, starting with people who are “uniquely vulnerable,” Geibel said.
“So we’re talking about pregnant women, we’re talking about people with medical conditions, we’re talking about people who don’t speak Spanish and thus really stick out in a Spanish-speaking country. People like that, to allow them to first come in.”
After that, he suggests people could enter in phases based on the last three digits of the identification number they were assigned when they applied for asylum.
HIAS also believes that people who were issued removal orders under MPP — and several other Trump-era policies that, critics say, denied asylum seekers due process — should be allowed to reopen their cases.
“It’s really important not only to stop putting new people into MPP, but to figure out a fair way for people to come to the United States for safety and a fair way to give people who have been denied a fair shot at asylum, that fair shot under a new system,” Geibel said.
Other groups, including the American Immigration Council, have issued similar recommendations.
Lives in the balance
Biden has said it will take time to rebuild the asylum process.
“It will get done, and it will get done quickly,” he said at a December press conference. “But it’s not going to be able to be done on day one — lift every restriction that exists and go back to what it was 20 years ago and all of a sudden find out we have a crisis on our hands that complicates what we were trying to do.”
Even though Biden suspended MPP, the border is still effectively sealed off to asylum seekers because of a public health order, issued last March, that allows immigration officials to turn away migrants. These rapid turn backs are known as Title 42 expulsions.
“Title 42 expulsions are the one thing that is absolutely certainly reducing the number of people that CBP has to deal with right now,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Brown, who worked on immigration under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, says it’s not surprising that Biden hasn’t yet revealed his full plans for immigration and the border.
“We already know there’s a lot of pent-up migration demand in Central America and in Mexico,” she said. “If you don’t have an alternative system set up and ready to go when you announce the unraveling of the other things, then you could risk putting lots of people in a bad situation again. Overcrowding in the facilities, not having COVID protocols in place, not having sufficient places to put people and to deal with the families and kids.”
But while that new system is being put into place, the lives of asylum seekers in MPP are in the balance, as many wait in dangerous settings. A report from Human Rights First found more than a thousand cases of kidnapping, physical and sexual assault and even murder of migrants in Remain in Mexico.
“We have clients that have been waiting for 16, 17 months. It’s like a nightmare and they want it to be over,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an El Paso non-profit that offers pro bono legal services to asylum seekers in MPP.
“We’re hopeful that the Biden administration will act quickly, at least give some clear messaging to people,” she said. “People have been patiently waiting, our clients are sitting in the same shelters they’ve sat in for months with disappointment after disappointment. They heard the message loud and clear, that [day one] is not the day, but they’re waiting to know when is the day?”
She hopes the new administration will welcome asylum seekers, after four years of policies aimed at denial and deterrence.
“Let them get to their sponsor family member that has been waiting for them and is ready and willing to keep them safe,” she said. “Let them be in different parts of the country with their family members where they’re going to have more access to finding an attorney than just our border attorneys and our border agencies here that are frankly strapped.”
Carlo, the asylum seeker from Brazil, is trying to hold onto hope that his situation will soon change. His wife is already in the U.S., and he and his daughters are desperate to join her. But each day that passes without an update, he says, brings more anxiety.
Mallory Falk is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Mallory at Mfalk@kera.org. You can follow Mallory on Twitter @MalloryFalk.