Elizabeth, a Salvadoran mother of three, had grown increasingly desperate after waiting nearly five months in the dangerous border town of Tijuana, Mexico, in turn to seek asylum in the United States.
She was told there was an easier way: pay thousands of dollars and be driven across the border with her three children, ages 18, 9 and 7.
Instead, according to Elizabeth, they were brought to armed men who kidnapped them and briefly took them to a farm. Eventually, they told her they would separate her from her eldest daughter if they crossed the Rio Grande.
“I was afraid they would do something to her,” she said in Spanish. The men took everything they had. “I thought if they killed us and left us here, no one would find us.”
She and her children started crying, and the men finally said they would come back for them.
“We just started praying,” she said, and in the early morning they were finally able to flee.
The decision has shaken Elizabeth, who only wanted her first name used out of concern for her safety and that of her children, and she said the men had called her cousin in Tijuana, threatening their lives.
When the family’s name was called from a notebook allowing them to approach the port of entry this fall, Elizabeth, who fled El Salvador to escape escalating abuse and continued threats from her husband and gang members, was told she would be sent back to Tijuana to await court dates in the United States
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the implementation of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and advocates say the rule has put tens of thousands of asylum seekers at risk while making it harder for them to access protection in the United States. Nearly 60,000 people have been placed under the program since it began at the Tijuana-San Diego border, according to data through December obtained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC. .
“Although he didn’t get all the money he needed to build a wall, the president did build a wall to keep asylum seekers out of this country,” said Robyn Barnard, lawyer at Human Rights First, representing Elizabeth.
Barnard said the story of the Salvadoran mother echoed that of many others, and the kinds of struggles asylum seekers face when forced to wait in Mexico. In addition to being vulnerable to violence or threats, asylum seekers face discrimination, housing instability and difficulty finding and communicating with lawyers.
Human Rights First said in a report published last week that it had tracked more than 800 public reports of “murder, torture, rape, kidnapping and other violent attacks against asylum seekers and migrants returned to Mexico” under the program, officially called the Protocols Protection of Migrants (MPP).
Elizabeth is one of many migrants who stay in Mexican border towns for months waiting to find out if they will have a chance at protection in the United States.
She said she and her children barely go out, fearing for their safety.
“This fear – you can’t be here freely on the streets,” she said. “I’m afraid of what would happen if they knew I was still in Mexico.”
According to data published by TRAC, only 2,765 of the 59,241 migrants in the program had been represented.
Nearly 30,000 cases remain unresolved, but only 187 have received relief, the data shows. More than 19,000 have received restraining orders while another 9,000 have had their procedure completed. Asylum is already a difficult form of relief to obtain, with recent data showing only a 20% approval rate.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, Heather Swift, said in a statement that the US and Mexican governments “stand 100% behind the MPP, which is strongly authorized by bipartisan law of Congress and allowed the United States to provide the possibility of due process to more than 57,000 migrants.
“DHS is always looking for ways to expand and strengthen the program to include new locations, populations and procedures to further enhance migrant protection and ensure safe and legal migration, while deterring smugglers and traffickers,” she said. “We are continuously working with Mexico and have provided over $17 million in assistance for safety and security measures. The MPP is one of the most important and effective tools we have in place to deal with the border crisis and we will continue to grow stronger and grow.
Albert, a Honduran migrant and father of four, came to Tijuana in the fall of 2018 to seek protection from criminals who had sued him in retaliation for his testimony in a Honduran robbery case.
Albert, who was also deported to Mexico under the policy, said he felt the rule was meant to force asylum seekers, despite strong cases, to give up.
“We are in great danger waiting here, it is as if the migrants have been forgotten,” said Albert, who asked that his full name not be used out of concern for his safety. “We are between the sword and the wall, all of us migrants here.”
“People failed because they waited desperately,” he said. “My life is at stake.”
Nicole Micheroni, a Boston-based immigration lawyer who represents Albert, said that while a network of immigration lawyers had rushed to try to represent migrants, the policy had created a “logistical nightmare intimidating”.
She said migrants with valid applications could drop their cases because “things are so bad in Mexico” or they can’t get to entry points in towns several miles away during hours. dangerous before dawn.
The policy was challenged in court in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed two weeks after the first migrant returned to Mexico.
In April, a federal judge temporarily blocked the policy — but just a month later, an appeals court granted the Trump administration’s request to allow the rule to go into effect as it becomes available. as the legal challenge unfolds. In October, the appeals court heard arguments in the policy challenge but has yet to issue a ruling.
“This policy has trapped tens of thousands of vulnerable migrants across the border, making it almost impossible for them to exercise their legal rights,” said Melissa Crow, senior attorney in charge of the Immigration Justice Project of the SPLC, in a statement about it – “Furthermore, it has hidden this humanitarian crisis created by the US government from view by the American public.”
Elizabeth’s case highlights how asylum seekers can face a range of challenges under the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Before even being allowed to report to the Tijuana port of entry, she had to wait months on a list, according to her and her attorney, under a policy known as “counting” that limits the number of migrants allowed to the United States daily.
Because she was forced to wait, the government can argue that she is subject to the ‘transit ban’, her lawyer said, a policy that says migrants must seek help in another country they crossed to get to the United States. Barnard says Elizabeth should not be subject to the policy, which is also facing legal challenges, because her name was put on the pending migrant list months before it was implemented.
Customs and Border Protection disputed having a “counting” policy, saying it engages in “queue management”.
“Queue management is not a policy, it is our ports that manage their missions with the means at their disposal. CBP officers at ports do not track the number of people or vehicles waiting to report to [ports of entry]because those waiting have not received any documentation from the U.S. government,” CBP said in a statement.
“The number of inadmissible individuals that CBP is able to process varies depending on the complexity of the case; available resources; medical needs; translation requirements; detention/detention space; overall port volume; and ongoing enforcement actions,” the agency said. “As we have for several years, when our ports of entry reach capacity, we must manage the lines and people showing up without documents may have to wait in Mexico while CBP officers work to process those that are already in our facilities.”
“CBP supports our need to balance operational requirements, capabilities, and capabilities,” the agency said.
Elizabeth said her children became depressed while waiting and did not feel safe leaving their apartment. She hopes her last hearing will put an end to their suffering.
“After everything we’ve suffered and everything we’ve been through here and in El Salvador,” she said, she hopes for a chance to finally set foot on American soil and not be sent back.