Remain in Mexico program for migrants ‘places them in danger,’ say immigration advocates

Immigration advocates and attorneys are voicing frustration with the Biden administration over its court-ordered reimplementation of the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, saying the enforcement and expansion of a program the administration opposed in court shows the White House isn’t fighting as aggressively as it could.

“The MPP program is something that the Biden administration promised to end during the elections. If we quote what the Biden administration or what [Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro] Mayorkas said about MPP — we’re all on the same page that this is a horrible program and it causes so much harm to our community,” said Dulce Garcia, an immigration attorney in San Diego, and executive director for Border Angels, a pro-immigrant advocacy organization. MPP refers to "Migrant Protection Protocols," the formal name of the program.

The “Remain in Mexico” policy was reinstated after the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Texas and Missouri, upholding lower court rulings that the Biden administration must implement the policy “in good faith” while it appeals the decision.

A family arrives at an improvised camp of asylum seekers and refugees at the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on Dec. 6.
A family arrives at an improvised camp of asylum seekers and refugees at the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on Dec. 6. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)

Garcia said the expansion of the program into the entire hemisphere to include non-Spanish-speaking countries like Jamaica and Haiti is even more problematic. Border agents were seen corralling Haitian migrants on horseback near Del Rio, Texas, in September, in order to push them back into Mexico.

“The Biden administration is saying that they’re being ordered by the Texas court to reimplement MPP. And they had to do so on ‘good faith’ — that was the order from the court. However, the court did not order the administration to expand on the program. What the Biden administration is doing is making it worse by adding Haitians onto this program, where they’re being told to wait in a country they are not safe,” Garcia told Yahoo News. “We’ve seen it firsthand in Tijuana with the humanitarian work that we do, the legal cases we handle in Tijuana. We know that Haitians have a very difficult time — not only because of the language barrier, but because they’re very vulnerable, by just being black migrants in a city that is not welcoming to them.”

Nearly 70,000 asylum-seekers across the southern border are subject to the policy. Migrants began being returned to Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, on Monday. The policy will eventually expand to seven other locations, including San Diego and Calexico Calif., Nogales, Ariz., and several Texas border cities including Brownsville and Eagle Pass.

Asylum seekers wait outside the El Chaparral border crossing port to enter the United States from Tijuana in February.
Asylum seekers wait outside the El Chaparral border crossing port to enter the United States from Tijuana in February. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

At any given time, Garcia said her organization helps support nearly 2,500 migrants from 17 different shelters in Tijuana. She said asylum-seekers fall victim to violence from drug-trafficking cartels. A report by Human Rights First that was published in August said 6,356 violent attacks against migrants in Mexico had been registered since January, including rape, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking and other assaults. Garcia said that’s why terminating the policy is crucial for thousands of families.

“This policy places them in danger,” she added, noting that when MPP was being implemented during the Trump administration, "we heard numerous reports of people being kidnapped, some had spouses that were killed, while this was going on.”

Under the new memo, the administration is promising “legal packages” to asylum-seekers, such as having access to lawyers. However, the likelihood of someone getting granted asylum while waiting in Mexico is very slim, given the lack of resources provided to them. “It’s really heartbreaking, because we know the access to counsel, which determines if someone is going to have a successful case or not, is still not being addressed,” Garcia said. “They’re wording it as if they've fixed all of it by providing legal packages for all. That will not be enough. They may have a really good claim but may not know how to articulate it.”

Only 1 percent of asylum-seekers subject to the policy were granted relief, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which said that about six in 10 claims were denied or dismissed, and that the rest are pending. Only about one out of every 10 had legal representation, well below the average in U.S. immigration court.

Migrants from around the globe have been waiting for months on end in Mexico under a program that Garcia argues violates international and U.S. law requiring admittance of asylum-seekers. “The right to asylum was very much politicized during the Trump administration,” she said. “And Biden promised to protect asylum-seekers, to restore protections for asylum-seekers. The administration has failed on that.”