Fear & uncertainty: Asylum-seekers in limbo under Trump’s expanding ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy
MPP program may soon hit Arizona, keeps many struggling to survive among streets, shelters of Mexico's border cities
As the Trump administration seeks to expand the "Migrant Protection Protocols" or "Remain in Mexico" program along the southwest border, migrants and shelter operators worry about the future, even as asylum reviews tighten further.
TIJUANA, Mexico — At 6:30 a.m., at El Chaparral, one of Tijuana’s three official crossing points between Mexico and the United States, people are already lining up. Even in July, the air is cool as the sun creeps over the horizon and across the city’s haphazard streets and alleyways.
César and a close friend are making their way to the border crossing, like they have on every morning for the past week.
Both men fled from their homes in Nicaragua because they were targeted by their government for their participation in anti-government protests, they said.
Initially a response to austerity measures proposed by the Daniel Ortega regime, protests broke out in several cities across the country in April 2018, and continued for months becoming increasingly deadly, as government and pro-Ortega paramilitary forces cracked down by killing student protesters, allegedly torturing political prisoners, targeting religious leaders and raiding local news stations.
César—whose name has been changed to protect his identity—participated in early protests, and believes government informants infiltrated the marches. Later, agents came to his home looking for him specifically, and César said he has plenty of hard evidence to prove he’s no longer safe in Nicaragua.
He doesn’t feel safe in Tijuana, either.
Soon after they arrived to the Mexican border city, César and his friend witnessed a kidnapping in their hotel and narrowly escaped being taken themselves, they said. Since then, they have lived in a state of constant fear.
"It feels like it happened yesterday," he said in Spanish, "and sometimes I feel like there’s someone watching me."
Like many who have fled the country, César is also wary of the Nicaraguan government’s potential reach beyond its borders – including into Mexico. "For any regime or government like Daniel Ortega’s, it’s easy to come here and desaparecerte (to make you disappear)," he said.
The two friends have been in Tijuana since early April awaiting their turn to enter the United States and make their asylum claims, held back from seeking protection in the United States because of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s system of "metering" the number of people who can come into the United States.
At least 18,000 people were waiting to request asylum at ports of entry, across the southern border in July, and the number of people who could enter U.S. ports remained relatively flat even as the number of people taken into custody between the ports by U.S. Border Patrol spiked in May before declining in June and July.
And, even after asylum-seekers do manage to speak to asylum officers in the U.S., most are sent directly back to Mexico under another Trump administration policy that’s been expanding recently: the Migrant Protection Protocols.
In December, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced the new program, saying that DHS officials would "confront" what they called a crisis, "head on."
"We will confront this crisis head on, uphold the rule of law, and strengthen our humanitarian commitments," Nielsen said.
"'Catch and release’ will be replaced with ‘catch and return.’ In doing so, we will reduce illegal migration by removing one of the key incentives that encourages people from taking the dangerous journey to the United States in the first place," Nielsen claimed. "This will also allow us to focus more attention on those who are actually fleeing persecution," she said.
However, there are signs that Migrant Protection Protocols have forced certain asylum-seekers to navigate the months or years-long U.S. asylum process while trying to survive in Mexico’s border cities. The first successful asylum claim made under the policy was just approved on August 6.
"Remain in Mexico" was first implemented this January in Tijuana and soon spread to Mexicali and Ciudad Juárez despite stories of rape, kidnapping, extortion and other crimes against vulnerable migrants in the borderlands.
Undeterred by a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the MPP system, the Department of Homeland Security expanded the program in July into South Texas, sending asylum-seekers in Laredo and Brownsville back across the border to Mexico.
Program soon coming to Arizona
In June, Reuters reported that DHS plans to do the same in San Luis Río Colorado, just south of Yuma, and that Nogales may be added to the growing list as well. But Mexican immigration officials have been kept in the dark by U.S. authorities, and insist that an influx of asylum-seekers would overwhelm an already strained migrant support infrastructure in Sonora, the Mexican state just south of Arizona.
This complaint was given further credence earlier this month when a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals limited a lower court's nationwide injunction, which barred the Trump administration blocking people from applying for asylum in the U.S. if they traveled through another country to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.
The new rule, announced July 16, would effectively hinder most asylum-seekers from applying for protection in the U.S. And, with the 9th Circuit ruling, DHS is free to implement the rule in New Mexico and Texas. This could send asylum seekers west from the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso to try their fate in Nogales or near Yuma, or even further west to Tijuana.
Tijuana strains to shelter migrants
Tijuana was one of the first cities to deal with MPP, and it provides the framework for what "Remain in Mexico" will look like if the program is implemented along Arizona’s stretch of the border.
José María García Lara founded and operates a migrant shelter in Tijuana’s Zona Norte neighborhood – just a couple hundred feet from the border wall itself. Established in 2011 to provide a safe haven for deportees, the shelter expanded in 2016 to accommodate an influx of Haitian migrants. Even after a number of improvements, it is still a barebones refuge, little more than a cluster of camping tents covered by a corrugated metal roof. Occupied mostly by families with kids, it’s rare if not impossible to find a moment of silence – or a corner without flies.
García Lara says the majority of Tijuana’s shelters are full, including his own. A Honduran family who’d walked there from El Chaparral was turned away, even though they had a young child and the sun was beginning to sink behind the Pacific Ocean.
Of the roughly 150 people sleeping there each night, García Lara says about a third are asylum-seekers returned under the Migrant Protection Protocols.
According to the Instituto Nacional de Migración, Mexico’s federal immigration agency, 18,503 asylum seekers were returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols as of July 7, their latest figure available to the public. Recent media reports have put the number closer to 20,000.
Despite asylum claims, siblings dropped back in Tijuana
Beatriz, an audacious 22-year-old Salvadoran, is one of them. Along with her 19-year-old brother, she fled gang violence and poverty in El Salvador. Her name has also been changed to protect her identity.
In their hometown, the siblings lived in a neighborhood controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha – otherwise known as MS-13 – but because Beatriz was attending English classes in a neighborhood controlled by a rival gang, she came under suspicion from both. Her family doesn’t have the money to move, and even if they did, there are few places within El Salvador’s borders untouched by the gangs and their rivalries. “The entire country is like that,” she said in Spanish. “There’s no security.”
After fleeing to Guatemala, Beatriz and her brother crossed into Mexico and took a series of buses to Tecate, where they climbed over the U.S. border wall and asked for asylum. After six days in CBP custody, the siblings were dropped off at El Chaparral in Tijuana with no money and no idea where to go. Eventually they found a shelter and were allowed in.
Beatriz says she felt relatively safe in the beginning, even outside her shelter’s sturdy metal door.
One day she was invited to a religious event by an older asylum seeking woman who had four young grandkids with her – two sat with the grandmother and two on Beatriz’s lap. It was a good time until Beatriz overheard two men behind her discussing "what they would do to me" and "where they could take me to." Then, one of them ran his fingers through Beatriz’s hair and pulled a knife.
In that moment, Beatriz says, the grandmother she’d come with stood up and offered an excuse to get away. "Beatriz, let’s go buy a juice," the woman said. With the kids, they walked into a nearby convenience store where the woman made the situation clear: "We’re leaving right now. Those men want to abduct you."
The two women and four grandkids managed to slip away, but after that episode, Beatriz decided to stay inside – even during the day – unless she absolutely has to leave the shelter.
At night she often hears gunshots and sirens. Recently, Beatriz says police visited her shelter late at night, and the next morning two decapitated bodies were found outside. She wasn’t sure who the victims were. According to local news media in Tijuana, there were 234 murders in the month of July alone, several of which included decapitations.
"What am I supposed to do in this country that’s even worse than my own?" Beatriz asked rhetorically. "Because there [in El Salvador] they might kill you and all that, but here they’ll kidnap you and make you into a prostitute." Of the United States, she added: "I don’t know why they’ve taken these measures to send us to a country that’s also not safe."
After nearly 10 weeks in Tijuana, Beatriz’s younger brother gave up the waiting game and went back to El Salvador. For the 19-year-old, it was a grim cost-benefit analysis. According to his sister, he figured returning to gang territory at home was a safer bet than being stuck in limbo 2,200 miles away on the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I imagine that is what Donald Trump wants: for us to go back," Beatriz said. "But not this Salvadoreña” she added, referring to herself. "I will always be a fighter. I’m not going anywhere."
Beatriz’s first appointment with U.S. immigration was only days away, but she knew she probably wouldn’t get a decision during the first encounter, and would likely be returned to Mexico with another court date weeks or months away. The shelter she’d been staying at told Beatriz she would need to find a new place to stay if that happened. "They’re going to give me 15 days,” she said. "After that I’ll have to find somewhere else."
Shelters in San Luis already full
About three and a half hours east of Tijuana’s chaotic streets is San Luis Río Colorado, a small farming city in Sonora, the Mexican state directly opposite Arizona.
Amos Bejamín Moreno Galindo is the Director General of Attention to Priority Groups and Migrants for the State of Sonora. His office works in conjunction with migrant shelters, soup kitchens, religious associations and other organizations that support migrants throughout the state, including in San Luis Río Colorado.
"The shelters right now are full. They’re operating at double their capacity," Moreno Galindo said in Spanish. "It would be very complicated for the shelters to attend to all the migrants the US plans to return." There would be serious concerns about health and security for the asylum seekers as well, he said.
Moreno Galindo says his office has been coordinating with local, state and federal Mexican authorities, but that the United States government has given them little information about how many asylum seekers they intend to return, or when exactly it would happen.
Regardless, he said, "the conditions don’t exist to receive that many people, especially in the places [the United States] has proposed." He added that while San Luis Río Colorado is safer than Tijuana in general, it’s still an ill-suited location for migrants and has extremely hot weather.
"I think it was something very rushed that could have been done differently, but we are going to do what we can to help,” Moreno Galindo said, “despite not having all the tools at this time."
People waiting may turn to smugglers
Rev. Robin Hoover knows Arizona’s southern border better than most. He was a key player in the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s and founded Humane Borders in 2000, having since stepped down from that role. Now, as president of Migrant Status, Inc., Hoover works with governments, faith-based groups and other stakeholders on both sides of the border to warn and inform migrants of what lays ahead of them.
He says the Migrant Protection Protocols violate and ignore international law, referring to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
"Trump is violating the spirit of those agreements," Hoover said.
According to Hoover, one danger of the Remain in Mexico policy is that it will inevitably erode faith in the U.S. asylum system and cause more migrants to cross the border using the services of smugglers, he said.
In the Sonoran borderlands, Hoover says, people-moving operations are entirely regulated by organized crime. "We’re putting money in the pockets of the cartels instead of just dealing with the problem," he said.
With the same number of personnel, Hoover speculates, the U.S. could be humanely processing asylum seekers "instead of leaving them in danger in Mexico."
In Tijuana, César waits
Back in Tijuana, the two Nicaraguans never venture far into the city. They sit in a select few public areas during the day, where there’s at least a police presence and American tourists. They are back inside the men’s shelter where they sleep by sundown – always.
On most days, they wake up around 3 a.m. to bathe and help cook for the hundreds of people who visit the shelter during the day for a free meal. Then, they try to be at El Chaparral by 7 a.m.
On this particular July morning, immigration officials decided not to take any asylum seekers. The message was familiar to the many migrants who gather at the port of entry: try again tomorrow.
After the announcement, César’s demeanor was strangely positive, even reassuring. It is what it is, he said.
But later that day in one of Tijuana’s public plazas, he was crying quietly, trying to cover his face with his backpack. Some recent deportees nearby noticed and started laughing.
The next morning the Nicaraguans didn’t answer their phone. Their waitlist number had finally been called, which meant they were on their way into the U.S. to be processed – although now they had to consider how the Trump administration's latest asylum ban would affect their request.
About 48 hours after they were taken across the border, the Nicaraguans recounted how they’d been treated by U.S. officials: "como perros (like dogs)." Now, they were back at El Chaparral in Tijuana, returned under MPP.
The U.S. immigration court document they’d been given said to report back to the border crossing for their initial asylum hearing at 9 a.m. in 15 weeks.