In Juárez, ‘Remain In Mexico’ Policy Casts Asylum-Seekers Back Into Uncertainty

For thousands of migrants, their journey to the United States has been derailed in northern Mexico border cities under a U.S. program called Migrant Protection Protocols. With shelters overflowing and work unavailable, they create a home wherever they can.

A mother and son — Grisélida, 44, and Julio, 12 — were sent back from El Paso to Juárez, Mexico, on Sunday. When they were turned away from Juárez’s largest shelter, they wandered around until they found a hotel near the downtown plaza that would allow them to sleep on a twin mattress on the basement floor for $4 a night. [NPR is not using migrants’ last names in this story because these are people who are in the middle of immigration proceedings.]

Sharing a hot hotel basement in Juárez with 15 to 20 other migrants isn’t what Grisélida or Julio imagined when they decided to leave Honduras. They fled because gangs were trying to recruit Julio.

“We had heard that if you came with your family or brought a small child, you could [enter the United States], so that made me hopeful. But then when we arrived, they said ‘no more,’ ” Julio tells Morning Edition host Noel King. “They didn’t even ask us anything. They just sent us back. They didn’t tell us anything. I don’t know what to do.”

Since April, the U.S. government has sent more than 8,000 migrants from El Paso to Juárez to wait as their cases are decided by U.S. immigration courts.

The U.S. government calls the program Migrant Protection Protocols, but it’s commonly known as “remain in Mexico.” It means that if you cross the border into the U.S. seeking asylum, you may have to wait to get a hearing in court. In the past, you could wait in the United States, but under this new policy, since January some have been told they must wait in Mexico instead. A federal judge in San Francisco halted the program in April, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted that injunction a month later and allowed the program to continue while court challenges proceed.

The lawsuit alleges that Migrant Protection Protocols denies migrants their due process rights. The vast majority of people in MPP so far have not had attorneys. In El Paso, a handful of attorneys for nonprofit organizations perform a regular triage to identify people with the best asylum claims or the greatest vulnerability in Mexico. Only a handful of private immigration attorneys in El Paso will take on MPP cases because of the challenges of building a case for clients who are difficult to contact.

Under threat by President Trump to start levying tariffs on goods exported to the U.S. from Mexico, the Mexican government agreed in June to allow for the expansion of MPP to other border communities. U.S. officials have said Yuma, Ariz., and Laredo and Brownsville in Texas are being studied as the next locations for MPP, though no timeline has been announced.

The migrants are being sent to northern Mexico cities wracked by drug violence. Juárez has averaged five murders a day since MPP started there in April. In immigration court in El Paso, migrants have spoken frequently of being sexually assaulted, kidnapped, robbed and attacked while in Mexico. Reuters has reported that only about 1% of people returned to Mexico have later been allowed stay in the U.S. to pursue their asylum claims.

Juárez is home to the largest number of migrants sent back from the U.S. and is struggling to care for them. Most of the migrants sent back are from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The numbers have far outpaced Juárez’s shelter capacity, forcing people to turn to hotels, rooms in homes and sometimes the street.

In the hotel basement, Grisélida mentions that her first court date in El Paso is Aug. 20. One woman nearby says, “I’ve been in Juárez, in this basement, longer than Grisélida. Why is my date later?” That sort of confusion, of randomness, has been a hallmark of Migrant Protection Protocols since it began. U.S. officials won’t even say how it decides which people are chosen to be sent back to Mexico, and which are allowed to stay in the U.S.

The hotel basement with a bare floor is crowded with about two dozen people and more than a dozen mattresses. Also staying there are Gilmer, 23; his wife, Glendi, 21; and their 3-year-old daughter. The Guatemalan couple say they came north to make a better life for their daughter.

They say they’ve seen other people leave the hotel basement to head back to their home countries. They vow to continue their efforts to come to the United States.

“We have a court date of Oct. 28,” Gilmer says. How they’ll cope in Juárez for the next few months isn’t clear.

On Monday, Mexican officials announced a “Juárez initiative” that seeks to process migrants more quickly when they’re sent back from the United States. Migrants will get work permits as part of the processing, which would address one of the biggest frustrations of people sent back from the U.S., who until now have largely lacked the legal right to work in Mexico.

Juárez’s largest employer is the maquiladora industry, manufacturing facilities set up by multinational companies. The industry’s trade association in Juárez said the manufacturing plants currently have 5,000 vacancies.

The initiative doesn’t appear to address one of the major concerns raised by migrants and human rights groups — the violence faced by many of the migrants returned to Juárez.

“There are many human rights violations — too many. This is something we need to take care of,” Javier Calvillo, the priest who runs Casa del Migrante, Juárez’s largest migrant shelter, told KTSM-TV in El Paso. “No plan, even if it involves the government, churches and private business, can succeed if we continue to have deaths, kidnappings, human traffickers and if people don’t respect the rights of migrants.”

Bo Hamby, Amara Omeokwe and William Jones produced and edited the broadcast version of this story, with Mónica Ortiz Uribe contributing.

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