Several dozen Central American migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border again, this time escorted by federal agents to an El Paso, Texas, courtroom, as part of an unprecedented effort by the Trump administration to control migration.
One by one, the judge asked if the migrants had a lawyer during a hearing last week. Nearly all of them said, “No.”
That’s not unusual. More than 6,000 migrants who came to the United States to ask for asylum have been sent back to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, to wait for their day in U.S. immigration court under the “Remain in Mexico” program. But only about 20 of them have lawyers, according to human rights groups and attorneys who work with the migrants.
Remain in Mexico is a key part of the Trump administration’s plan to turn back a crush of migrants at the southern border, and it’s a historic shift in how the asylum system works.
The administration says the program will help restore a “safe and orderly immigration process” and prevent migrants from gaming the system by asking for asylum and then never turning up for court and disappearing into the interior of the United States. In June, the U.S. and Mexico announced plans to expand the program widely along their shared border.
But Remain in Mexico is drawing widespread criticism. Immigrant advocates, lawyers and former U.S. officials say the United States is turning its back on asylum-seekers — vulnerable people who are allowed under U.S. law to seek sanctuary in the United States. Instead, these migrants travel thousands of miles, only to get stopped on the doorstep of the United States.
The union that represents U.S. asylum officers filed a brief in federal court last week as part of a lawsuit seeking to block the program, arguing it is “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation.” In a separate brief, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, among others, argued that the program runs afoul of international commitments.
The Remain in Mexico program in El Paso is one of the largest in the nation. And it offers a case study in how the program is working: Many migrants are confused about the legal process and fearful for their safety in dangerous Mexican border towns. Moreover, advocates and lawyers say more migrant families are being separated under the program.
“It’s just a complete farce,” says Taylor Levy, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, noting that the Trump administration now calls the program Migrant Protection Protocols.
“I have worked with asylum-seekers for 10 years,” Levy says. “I have never seen people as scared, who are just viscerally terrified while they’re begging me, ‘Please don’t let me get sent back. Please don’t let me get sent back.’ ”
Asylum-seekers do not have a right to a court-appointed lawyer in immigration court. The administration says it provides migrants in the program with a list of legal service providers in the area that offer help at little or no expense.
But in reality, lawyers in El Paso say, not enough nonprofit or pro bono lawyers are willing or able to take the time to trek back and forth across the international bridge, where wait times can be several hours long. That leaves many migrants to navigate the process themselves.
At the same time, advocates say, migrants have frequently become victims of crime in Juárez, including kidnappings and robberies. And migrants say they feel like they’re targets because they stand out.
“We are all afraid when we go out,” said a Cuban migrant named Serafin Aguilera Perez. He says he was returned to Juárez last month after spending more than 40 days in U.S. custody. His sister in Miami wired him money to help him find shelter and food in Juárez, he told NPR. But when he went to a convenience store, Aguilera says, he was jumped from behind by two attackers who knocked him down and tried to take his money.
“How could I feel safe?” he said. “Look how beat up I am.”
The assailants didn’t get the money, Aguilera says. But they left him with a black eye and visible scrapes on his chin and cheek. Aguilera says he wound up paying 7,000 pesos — more than $350 — to a hospital in Juárez that treated his injuries.
Many of the migrants in Juárez, who fled extreme poverty and violence in Central America, Cuba and Africa, say they feel trapped in the crowded migrant shelters run by churches in Juárez.
“You can’t go anywhere because you don’t know the area, and it’s dangerous too,” says Jose Baires Chavez, a migrant from El Salvador.
Back home, Baires says, gangs tried to recruit him after he left the military. So he fled to the U.S. along with his son, Walter. But the two were returned to Juárez and found their way to a migrant shelter called El Buen Pastor. Now, Baires says, they’re afraid to leave the shelter.
“It’s like we’re deprived of our freedom,” he said.
“Never have we dealt with clients that are in so much danger,” says Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. Rivas is one of the few lawyers in El Paso who is representing migrants in the program. She tells the story of a Honduran woman who asked for asylum and was put in the program. The woman told U.S. authorities that she didn’t feel safe in Juárez as a single woman, but she was sent back anyway.
Then, Rivas said, the woman alleged she was kidnapped and raped by multiple attackers. When Rivas heard about the allegations, she said that she and other advocates escorted the woman to the international bridge and persuaded authorities to let her wait in the U.S. for her day in court.
Now Rivas says she’s terrified for her other clients who remain in Mexico.
“You’re representing them, and you know they’re going to be back in Juárez,” Rivas said. “And you don’t know if something’s going to happen to them while they’re waiting for the court or they’re waiting for you to go out there and work on their asylum cases with them. Anything can happen. And it’s happening.”
The administration says it will assess claims from migrants who say they fear returning to Mexico and will exempt them if they are found to be “more likely than not” to face persecution or torture in Mexico. But in practice, advocates say, such exceptions are extremely rare.
Immigrant advocates and lawyers in El Paso are also concerned about families in the program being separated.
The Trump administration drew international condemnation when it routinely separated migrant parents from their children before abandoning the “zero tolerance” policy last year.
Now, lawyers say, they have handled cases of families in which some members — sometimes the father and children older than 18 — are sent back to Mexico, while the mother and younger kids are allowed to stay in the United States.
Lawyers and advocates also say that families are separated when children come to the border with an adult who is not their parent or legal guardian, such as a grandparent, older sibling or aunt or uncle.
While these relatives may have served as primary caretakers back in their home countries, authorities say that they need legal proof of guardianship and that they’re trying to ensure kids aren’t being trafficked. This has been the policy in previous administrations too.
But under Remain in Mexico, these relatives are separated indefinitely with no means of contacting the children, who are taken into U.S. custody and are eventually sent to shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement before being placed with sponsors, often other family members, in the United States.
“The government is not documenting these cases, is failing to provide ORR with critical information, and has no ability to track or reunify the families it is separating. This practice is traumatizing and endangering children,” the Women’s Refugee Commission, a nonprofit advocacy group, wrote in a report on Remain in Mexico.
The administration says migrant children who arrive at the border alone, or who are separated from their families, will not be subject to Remain in Mexico. The program also excludes “vulnerable populations” on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, the administration plans to grow the program. Mexico agreed to an expansion after President Trump threatened to impose tariffs unless that country did more to stem the flow of migrants coming north.
Mexico also agreed to dispatch its National Guard on that county’s southern and northern borders. In Juárez, there’s a highly visible military presence of Mexican National Guard and Army forces. Residents and officials say they haven’t seen such a deployment on the northern border before.
The armed soldiers say they’re not there to arrest anyone. Instead, they are there to deter migrants crossing the border illegally and directing migrants to get on a waiting list to be able to cross at an official port of entry.
Migrants are spending months on that list, often to be returned to Mexico after being processed by U.S. immigration authorities.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan says Mexico’s efforts to deter migration, along with the Remain in Mexico program, are having an impact. At a press conference on Friday, McAleenan said apprehensions at the border are expected to drop 25% percent in June compared to the previous month.
Still, apprehensions in the El Paso-Juárez region remain high. The U.S. Border Patrol said last week that agents are taking into custody an average of about 800 people a day in the El Paso sector. That’s down slightly from May, but still far above the number of apprehensions in the region six months ago.
Enrique Valenzuela, a Mexican state immigration official, says Juárez is bracing for more migrants to arrive from the south — and to be returned from the U.S.
“This is a situation that even though we did not cause locally, we have been coping locally,” he said. “We have been working to gather any kind of resources you can get a hold of.”