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The ongoing devastation of Trump's 'remain-in-Mexico' policy

The ongoing devastation of Trump's 'remain-in-Mexico' policy
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One of the first things you notice when visiting El Buen Pastor shelter in western Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, is that children are everywhere. They play in the halls, in the kitchen, in the courtyard and throughout the facility. But they never play on the sidewalk out front. They can’t even walk there unaccompanied. It’s not safe. 

Some are tended to by women who are not their mothers, while fathers hit the streets, taking whatever work they can get to earn enough money to provide some sense of security and survive another six months to two years before their asylum claim is heard before a U.S. immigration court. 

Thanks to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), more aptly known as “remain in Mexico,” nearly 60,000 people were involved in deportation hearings in 2019. 

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Rather than uphold the internationally recognized right to seek asylum and allow asylum seekers to await their day in court in safety with loved ones, the administration has sought to deter black, brown and indigenous migration by banishing migrants to Mexican states currently under U.S. travel advisories. One state, Tamaulipas, shares a safety rating with Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.  

Today, migrants still awaiting their day in court in northern communities such as Ciudad Juárez are subjected to robbery, assault and other crimes, including kidnappings. In 2019, Ciudad Juárez reported nearly 1,500 homicides, the highest number since 2011. When they finally do face an immigration judge, their prospects are likely to remain no brighter. 

When I served as a court monitor, I was struck by how opaque “remain in Mexico” is in court, while it takes place in plain sight. The El Paso courtroom where the fate of so many is decided is located on the seventh floor of a municipal building shared by the regional IRS office. 

In the early days, the entire court scene was an uncertain labyrinth confounding judges, attorneys, advocates and asylum seekers themselves. It became clear that there was no forethought to the implementation of this program.

Since then, the remain-in-Mexico policy has greatly hindered access to possible advocates for asylum seekers: no “know your rights” training, no friends of the court, no unassigned attorneys who could step in to help, no due process. No one can stop injustice they can’t see. Because the claimants are stuck in dangerous areas, fewer than 3 percent of asylum seekers have U.S. immigration attorneys by their sides during their proceedings. Typically, there’s a judge, an interpreter, a Department of Homeland Security attorney and the claimant. 

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For this reason, it’s not surprising that since the MPP program went into effect, U.S. judges have sent some refugees with strong cases for asylum back to countries where they could face death.

As an advocate working with these families at the border, I can assure you that in the face of  lawlessness and injustice, borderland communities are doing their part. We are pushing legislation, providing legal training in Mexico, offering humanitarian aid and educating the public. 

But now, we need you to demand dignity and care for asylum seekers.

We must end MPP and the harm it causes: the expedited asylum programs precluding due process and access to counsel, and the issuing of deportations in absentia. We must instead educate judges about the root causes of mass migration and train them on the ethical treatment of trauma survivors. 

Congress must stop bloating the budget of our immigrant enforcement agencies and instead redirect resources to hire additional immigration judges and asylum officers, ending the outrageous backlog of over 1 million immigrants currently awaiting their day in court.

But most of all, we Americans must look within ourselves and ask if what we’re doing aligns with the values found in the 1980 Refugee Act: “... [I]t is the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands, including, where appropriate, humanitarian assistance for their care and maintenance in asylum areas.”

Are we a beacon of hope for the world’s downtrodden and dispossessed, or are we just another level of hell that migrants must survive in their near impossible hope of finding a safe place for their families to live? A year after MPP, while our unimaginable disregard for the plight of asylum seekers remains in Mexico, the solution remains within us. 

Marisa Limón Garza is the deputy director of the Hope Border Institute, which brings the perspective of Catholic social teaching to bear on the realities unique to the U.S.-Mexico border region.