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The worst immigration policy you’ve never heard of

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Carlos is a two-year-old boy from Honduras with profound developmental disabilities and epilepsy. Erica is a seven-year-old girl from El Salvador who has Down’s Syndrome and a related heart defect. Both of these children (given pseudonyms here) are living in makeshift tents just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, a setting with no running water, toilets, or showers. 

They are two among hundreds of kids in urgent need of medical care, nutritious food, social support, and education. But they are getting none of these services.

Along with thousands of other migrants, they are stuck in immigration limbo, awaiting the judgment of their requests to enter the United States legally. From the camp in Matamoros, Mexico, you can see Texas. 

This camp has no prior history. It sprang up only this summer, when the United States introduced a new federal rule informally called “Remain in Mexico” (technically, the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP).

It stipulates that people seeking asylum in the United States must wait inside Mexico while their asylum case is being decided. Actual hearings of individual instances take place in border “tent courts.”

The rule is undergoing a legal challenge, but for now, the 9th Circuit Court is allowing the policy to proceed, based on vague assurances from the Mexican government that it will guarantee the safety of the asylum seekers. 

More than 66,000 people to date have been forced to “Remain in Mexico.” We met many at the Matamoros camp a few weeks ago, which we visited to assess whether Mexico’s guarantees for safety are being met. Going in, we knew that the situation already represents an affront to due process rights, statutes, and treaty obligations.

Turning people back to Mexico makes the already high barriers to processing their asylum claims practically insurmountable.

There are no addresses in places like Matamoros, which means there is no place to receive mailed updates on court dates. It is also nearly impossible to access lawyers, assemble evidence, or present witnesses.

Asylum applicants have no access to full hearings. Some are transported from Mexico to other countries without U.S. courts being notified, making it appear as if they missed their hearing dates. 

But the people we spoke to face even more urgent problems. The camps are hazardous places, with reports of exploitation, extortion, violence, rape, and kidnapping.

The Matamoros area has been designated a “Do Not Travel” area by the U.S. State Department, “due to crime and kidnapping.” Yet this is where disabled children and traumatized people are being sent by the U.S. government, with no protections or efforts to ensure their safety. 

Physicians for Human Rights clinicians interviewed multiple people who have been kidnapped in Mexico. Nearly all of them exhibited classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and broke down into tears during their interviews. 

A local attorney told us that at least 50 percent of the dozens of migrants she has screened have reported being kidnapped in Mexico after being “returned” by the U.S. government. She believes the actual number is likely higher.

The Mexican police turn a deaf ear. Only one of her current 44 clients, all with devastating stories from their home countries, has been exited from the MPP program and allowed to follow her case in the United States. These are not the conditions of “migrant protection.”

The asylum seekers we spoke to inspired us with their bravery and resilience, persisting in their claims despite the unjust and unlawful obstacles thrown in their way by the U.S. government.

Local activists working in the camp, such as Global Response Management, the Resource Center, Operation Brownsville, Lawyers for Good Government, and Project Lifeline, are offering humanitarian and legal services to help families survive these conditions.

However, grassroots groups should not have to provide for the survival of people in a crisis exacerbated by the U.S. government’s deliberately cruel, chaotic, and illegitimate policies. 

The concept of asylum was never intended to include a deliberate gauntlet of punishing and inhumane obstacles as part of the process. Yes, asylum seekers require genuine vetting, but they also deserve a fair shot at applying for protection under U.S. law, under safe circumstances, as we’ve done since WWII.

Urgently, the U.S. government should work with Mexico and international organizations to ensure the safety and support the protection of asylum seekers currently stuck in camps along the border.

Migrants presenting at U.S. port of entries must be processed humanely and per U.S. laws. MPP is just one of the border policies being implemented by the Trump administration, which endangers asylum seekers.

We must end border policies that create crises, imperil the lives of refugees and other migrants, and violate U.S. and international law.

We call on the administration to implement immigration law as Congress intended. In the meantime, we stand with groups at the border to demand respect for the rights of asylum seekers like Carlos and Erica.

Kathryn Hampton is a senior officer for the Asylum Program at Physicians for Human Rights. Dr. Ranit Mishori is a senior medical advisor at Physicians for Human Rights. 


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