Migrants look over their documents at a makeshift migrant camp at the base of the Paso del Norte International Bridge in Ciudad Juárez on Oct. 3. Migrants wait close to the port of entry so they won’t lose their spot in line to legally cross into the U.S. and seek asylum. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
Oscar, who was living in Ciudad Juárez after fleeing Honduras, said he was badly beaten in September on his way to find work simply for being Central American. His teeth were knocked out and he was repeatedly clubbed in the head.
In July, Luis Emilio, a 22-year old Ecuadoran migrant, was sent back to Mexico after spending everything he had to make the trek to Ciudad Juárez in hopes of seeking asylum in the United States. He has since given up and tried to go back to his home country.
And just last month, Sofia, who fled Central America with her husband and two children, was told by Juárez shelter officials to consider taking her young daughter out of school because increasing violence made walking to the campus too dangerous, her attorney said.
Those are just a few of the stories collected from people waiting on the south side of the Texas-Mexico border since the Trump administration implemented its Migrant Protection Protocols, a program that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their immigration hearings in American courts. (The migrants asked their last names not be revealed for fear of reprisals in Mexico and the United States.)
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the program that has so far sent more than 60,000 migrants back across the border since it was first implemented in California and Baja California. The program then expanded to the Texas border and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Chihuahua and Coahuila.
“As of today, approximately 60,000 asylum seekers are unable to reach safety because of the Trump Administration’s policies,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio said in a statement on behalf of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “While waiting, these families are vulnerable to kidnapping, assault, rape, extortion, and murder. They cannot access legal counsel, and then do not receive due process at the immigration tent courts across the border.”
As of December, about 17,500 people had been returned to Ciudad Juárez alone, making the gritty border city the epicenter of the program. A report published earlier this week by the HOPE Border Institute puts the figure closer to 20,000.
Enrique Valenzuela, the director of Ciudad Juárez’s Centro de Atención a Migrantes, a migrant transition facility operated by the Chihuahua state government, said it’s difficult to determine how accurate the counts are or how many migrants are still waiting in Mexico. That’s because many of them have either grown frustrated with the program and decided to try crossing the Rio Grande illegally, or they have simply given up and returned home.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment. But acting Customs and Border Protection Secretary Mark Morgan has said the program has had the intended effect: slowing unauthorized crossings.
In December, federal agents apprehended or turned away 40,620 migrants at the southwest border. That marked the eighth monthly decrease since the number hit 144,116 in May, according to CBP statistics.
Morgan added that reports of violence in Mexico are overblown.
“The individuals that leave that shelter environment and re-engage with the cartels to potentially be re-smuggled in the United States … that’s where we’re seeing and we’re hearing some of the anecdotal stories,” he said last month.
The rollout of the program last year came as violence in Mexican border cities continued to climb. Ciudad Juárez recorded about 1,500 homicides in 2019, the highest yearly total since 2011, the last year of a drug war that claimed more than 10,000 people in the border city. Last weekend, 20 people were murdered in 24 hours in Ciuadad Juárez.
And in a New Year’s Day Facebook post, Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar asked Laredoans not to travel to their sister city.
“Please avoid these areas and do not cross over to Nuevo Laredo. It’s been said that high-caliber machine guns and explosives are being utilized. They are highjacking vehicles and disturbing the peace. Our prayers go out to the citizens of Nuevo Laredo,” he wrote.
For migrants choosing to tough it out, the chances of receiving asylum are slim. Of the estimated 7,500 cases that immigration judges have decided in the El Paso immigration court system, asylum or another form of relief was granted in only 15 instances, according to the report by the HOPE Border Institute.
“With a near 90 percent denial rate, El Paso immigration courts routinely deny asylum significantly above the national average; migrants are thereby disadvantaged by a program which forces them to remain within the El Paso jurisdiction,” the report states.
For now, opponents of the Migrant Protection Protocols are waiting on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to make a decision on the program; the court allowed it to continue until it can complete a review of the merits of a lawsuit that claimed the policy should have gone through a public comment period under the Administrative Procedure Act.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, has filed the Asylum Seeker Protection Act to defund the program — but to become law, it would have to get approval from the Republican-controlled Senate and President Trump. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to expand the program: Late Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that MPP will also apply to Brazilians seeking asylum in the United States.
“MPP remains a cornerstone of the Department’s efforts to restore integrity to the U.S. immigration system and relieve the crushing backlog of pending asylum cases. Our nation is more secure because of the program,” a statement from DHS said.