It’s been just over a year since the United States began returning asylum seekers to Mexico under the “Remain-in-Mexico” program. The situation remains desperate for thousands of migrants in Mexican border towns.
On January 29, 2019, a 55-year-old Honduran walked down the San Ysidro port of entry ramp in Tijuana. He was the first asylum seeker returned to Mexico under the controversial “Migrant Protection Protocols”, more commonly known as “Remain in Mexico”.
Since that day, more than 57,000 asylum seekers have followed in his footsteps across the southwest border, returned to Mexico to await their day in immigration court in the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created the program to prevent asylum seekers from being released into the United States before their asylum hearings; a program they call catch and release.
DHS and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) declined repeated requests to interview KPBS for this story. DHS told KPBS in a statement that the “Remain In Mexico” program is currently undergoing an internal review.
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But the administration of this program by DHS has put migrants directly at risk. Asylum seekers faced violence and persecution while waiting in Tijuana and had little access to legal assistance.
On top of that, Mexican officials say their hands are tied — they’re simply complying with the wishes of the Trump administration.
“We were pressured by the government of the United States, by the president of the United States to accept [asylum-seekers]”, said Jesús Alejandro Ruíz Uribe, Federal Delegate of Baja. Uribe as liaison between the Baja State Government and the President of Mexico.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President of Mexico, allowed Remain-in-Mexico to grow and started a crackdown on immigration along Mexico’s southern border after the Trump administration threatened the country with crippling tariffs.
Still, Uribe says the goal of Mexican authorities has been to treat migrants returned to Mexico with respect.
“It’s a government run by a humanist,” Uribe told KPBS in Spanish. “We must treat migrants with human dignity and spend money on this humanitarian mission.”
The Mexican government does not keep track of what happens to migrants returned to Mexico. Many, faced with a months-long wait, enter the United States by jumping a fence or walking through the desert. Some return to their country of origin. Others are victims of violence in border towns.
A report by the organization Human Rights First found that more than 816 people in the program were murdered, tortured or attacked while awaiting a court hearing in Mexico.
At the end of November, a 35-year-old Salvadoran man was killed in Tijuana after being sent back to Mexico with his wife and children. According to the coroner’s report obtained by KPBS, the man was dismembered.
“It is as if the border has fallen into darkness and we are all doing our best to ensure our survival,” said Nicole Ramos, a lawyer for the organization. Al Otro Lado, which provided legal and humanitarian support to asylum seekers in Tijuana. “In our office in Tijuana, we have literally brought in victims of human trafficking after escaping human traffickers. And we ourselves have faced personal danger because we are forced to find places where people can hide.”
More than 27,500 people have been returned to the Tijuana-Mexicali region from along the border. To get to court, they must line up early in the morning in Tijuana, to be transported by bus to downtown San Diego for their hearings.
Less than 3% of San Diego litigants have been able to find a lawyer, as legal service providers are at their wit’s end and private attorneys fear traveling to see clients in Mexico.
“There is no access to a lawyer,” Ramos told KPBS. “The idea that an MPP asylum seeker can get or afford a lawyer is just laughable.”
Uribe says the future of the “Remain-in-Mexico” program depends on the US presidential election in November.
“It will be a fundamental issue that people will vote on in the next election,” he said. “If you want to continue Trump’s policies and his handling of migrants.”
Until then, the Mexican government will continue to accept migrants in a city already strapped for resources.