If you come to the U.S. seeking protection today, everything is stacked against you.
The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) were enacted by the Trump administration in early 2019 in an effort to deter people from seeking asylum in the U.S. Under this opaque policy, when someone arrives at our southern border to ask for refuge from persecution, officials send them back to Mexico where they wait as their asylum case moves slowly through U.S. courts.
Since the policy – sometimes called “Remain in Mexico” – was enacted, more than 66,000 people seeking asylum have been sent back to Mexico. More than 20,000 of them are children, including hundreds of babies. Most live in extremely precarious situations for months at a time. And importantly, migrants under MPP are not from Mexico, so they are stranded in a country they don’t know and many don’t even speak Spanish.
They are not provided any resources when they’re returned to Mexico indefinitely — no real access to dignified shelter, medical care, education, food, sanitation, or legal support. With nowhere to go, thousands have ended up forming a makeshift refugee camp in Matamoros, just across from Brownsville, Texas. There, asylum seekers themselves have organized into groups to keep themselves as safe and healthy as possible. In Matamoros, RAICES met Perla, a Nicaraguan nurse travelling with two generations of women from her family, putting her background in public health to good use.
Now, they must also battle a silent threat: COVID-19. With already limited resources, migrants waiting on their asylum cases are fighting to maintain hygiene on the streets, in rundown apartments, and even in makeshift refugee camps alongside hundreds of other families. And like almost everything else in 2020, immigration court hearings were halted, meaning asylum seekers caught in this maze are now waiting longer and longer, some for more than a year.
In the past, migrants who reached the U.S. to ask for asylum and safety were processed, detained, and then usually released into the U.S. while their case made its way through the courts. During this time, many people would live with family or a sponsor who could help them find their feet in a new country.
But under MPP, when someone lawfully presents themselves to U.S. officials to ask for asylum, they are turned right back around. They’re given a stack of papers, mostly in English, and told to come back to the U.S. on their court dates. However, many asylum seekers don’t speak English or understand what’s being asked of them. Finding an attorney to represent you while you are stuck in Mexico is tremendously difficult. This puts migrants under MPP at a massive disadvantage in the courtroom.
When a person seeking asylum has legal representation, they are five times more likely to win their asylum case than those who are unrepresented. Yet, only 7% of migrants under MPP have been able to get legal representation in 2019 — meaning 93% of all migrants under MPP were left to fend for themselves in U.S. courts, where language barriers can make it impossible for them to navigate the system.
In comparison, asylum seekers able to fight their case from within the U.S. are seven times more likely to have an attorney, so their odds of a fair chance in court are much better.
The data we’re seeing is staggering: Since January 2019, only 0.8% of asylum seekers in MPP have been granted asylum. This is exactly what the Trump administration was hoping for: make it nearly impossible to win an asylum case. MPP has become an invisible wall at the border, effectively ending asylum.
With or without a lawyer, the asylum process can last months or even years. With nowhere else to go, they must live in cities along the border like Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo. These cities are largely controlled by organized crime and cartels, who systematically target vulnerable migrants. In fact, many of the areas MPP delivers migrants to are places with the highest level of travel warnings for U.S. citizens – often the same warning level issued for Syria – because rates of murder, kidnapping, sexual violence, and extortion are off the charts. U.S. citizens are told not to travel here. Asylum seekers under MPP are told to figure out to survive here indefinitely with nothing.
As of May 2020, there have been more than 1,000 crimes committed against asylum seekers and migrants forced to return to Mexico under MPP, including murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults. In 265 of those cases, the victims were children who were kidnapped or nearly kidnapped after being placed in Mexico by the U.S.