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Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” Program Remains Problematic

One year ago, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began implementing the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program. This policy enables U.S. border officials to send asylum seekers to unsafe locations in Mexico while their claims are being reviewed in immigration courts, all without the benefits of humanitarian aid or legal assistance. From January 2019 through January 2020, nearly 62,000 people have been returned to Mexico to await court hearings. 

When the policy was first announced, the Trump administration emphatically claimed that it would “provide a safer and more orderly [immigration] process… and allow more resources to be dedicated to individuals who legitimately qualify for asylum.” Even further, the DHS has touted the MPP as a winning bipartisan policy that has full support from the U.S. and Mexican governments. But despite the initial optimism surrounding its implementation, the MPP has fallen short of its promise to protect asylum seekers and proven itself to be one of the most dangerous and discriminatory immigration policies to date. 

In a fact sheet released in January 2020, Human Rights First tracked at least 816 public reports of murder, torture, rape and other violent attacks against asylum seekers sent to Mexico under MPP. These threats to safety occur as migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other South American countries are forced into some of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. Unable to adjust to a foreign environment and troubled by uncertainty about the future, migrants undergo physical and psychological stress that increases their vulnerability to criminal victimization. Particularly among the 16,000 children returned to danger in Mexico, psychological trauma can lead to long-term negative consequences for brain development and social functioning, preventing prospects of a “better life” from ever transpiring. 

In fact, the tent cities and detention centers established by the MPP are endangering the lives of thousands of immigrant children. With roughly 80 percent of asylum-seeking families with young children, shelters are unable to deliver medical and nutritional needs to all sick children. A limited amount of funding and poor cooperation with the Mexican government has left children to grow up in unsanitary, life-threatening conditions. As Kristin Clarens, an attorney with Project Adelante, a group of multidisciplinary professionals working at the border, wrote in an article for Slate: “The Mexican government initially restricted humanitarian groups’ access to sort of building things like toilets and showers… little kids were swimming in the same place where little kids were also vomiting and having diarrhea.”

When children with poor health have no choice but to live in these environments, they are undoubtedly more susceptible to malnutrition, severe diseases and death. The MPP has left young children in tent cities for months on end, providing no promise of asylum or sufficient resources to survive. 

Moreover, the MPP disproportionately harms underrepresented migrants such as LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. It is estimated that 88% of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and refugees suffered from sexual and gender-based violence in their countries of origin. But in an effort to flee a life troubled by discrimination, LGBTQ+ migrants are met with only more trauma perpetuated by the MPP. For most, the journey from Northern Triangle countries to the U.S.-Mexico border is already fraught with danger and hostility from various communities. However, the dangers are particularly evident for LGBTQ+ migrants who are more likely than others to experience sexual violence in Mexico’s northern border states. To make matters worse, the MPP places LGBTQ+ people in unfamiliar cities for extended periods of time where there are not enough shelters that serve or accept LGBTQ+ migrants. The inability of the MPP to consider extenuating circumstances migrants face has jeopardized the safety of thousands of asylum seekers who have no option but to leave their home countries.

But the “Remain in Mexico” program goes further than being ethically problematic; it creates additional barriers to legal representation and protection for migrants. The MPP policy has become a part of the Trump administration’s efforts to reverse the longstanding U.S. and international refugee law and practice. By forcing asylum seekers to wait in dangerous conditions instead of reforming immigration proceedings, the MPP compounds existing failings in the U.S. immigration system. For instance, while access to legal counsel is an essential component of due process, only 2% of asylum seekers subjected to MPP have been able to obtain representation in courts. Although a lack of legal counsel is a problem that existed prior to the MPP, asylum seekers’ right to counsel is nearly impossible to exercise from Mexico. As Laura Peña, pro bono counsel for the American Bar Association Commission on Immigration, explained in a statement before the House Committee on Homeland Security: “Attorneys are not permitted to enter the tent courts to screen potential clients or provide general legal information…nor are asylum seekers permitted to enter the United States to consult with their attorneys, other than for one hour preceding their scheduled hearings. When I tried to challenge these restrictions in one of my cases, the immigration judge ruled that he did not have jurisdiction to consider my request because the facility is controlled by DHS.”

As a result, to provide legal services, U.S. attorneys must prepare for complicated asylum cases without the opportunity to consult in person with their clients. However, with no knowledge of the personal circumstances that pushed an asylum seeker out of their country, an attorney is forced to fill in the blanks of the case themselves, making it difficult for them to fully represent their client in court. 

Although the Trump administration may claim that the MPP was implemented to create more space and safety for incoming asylum seekers awaiting trial, it is clear that sending people to “Remain in Mexico” is part of a broader goal to deprive asylum seekers of their fundamental legal rights and prevent them from entering the U.S. Coupled with recent DHS rule changes that charge fees for asylum applications and make asylum seekers wait at least a year for work permits, the MPP has added fuel to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant sentiment

In response to the moral and legal pitfalls of the MPP, various human rights organizations—namely, Human Rights Watch, American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Washington Office on Latin America—have called on Congress and the White House to defund the program. However, the movement to rescind the MPP has garnered little attention from U.S. citizens largely because of new restrictions on legal observers, the press and the public to report on happenings in immigration tent courts. Thus, the MPP has not generated the same public outrage that the 2018 family separation policy did because the Trump administration is deliberately trying to cover it up, hoping that the distance of sending asylum seekers to Mexico will hide the story and American journalists will find it difficult to cover. But amidst these efforts, it is important that we, as voters and activists, stay informed on changing immigration policies and hold our lawmakers accountable for the injustices occurring in the status quo. If not, the MPP will prevail and our ignorance will be responsible for the suffering of many. 

As of December 2019, only eleven of the more than 60,000 people in the MPP have won asylum. This 0.1 percent asylum grant rate should be enough of an indication that the MPP does not serve the needs of asylum seekers. And while the DHS has recently implemented changes to the policy that are meant to speed up court case processing, asylum seekers have every right to be skeptical of claims made by the DHS. When the Department says they are “constantly looking for ways to strengthen and improve the program,” they fail to see that immigration policies are not “constantly” negotiable and revisable when thousands of lives rely on them.

One year ago, the Trump administration made a commitment to enhance protections for asylum seekers and ensure safe and lawful migration. Today, it is time to make a commitment to provide basic human rights for those attempting to escape a life of poverty, discrimination, and war. The first step is to acknowledge the perils of current asylum policies, then move forward in enacting true, substantive immigration reform. But, for now, as long as the “Remain in Mexico” program stays in effect, the humanitarian crisis at the border will continue to remain unchanged. 

Photo: Luis Angulo via The Novak Archive

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Cynthia Sutanto is a high school senior from Corpus Christi, Texas. Her areas of interest include global affairs, intersectional feminism, and political theory. In her free time, she enjoys thrift shopping and drinking too much iced coffee.

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