One of the first things you notice when visiting El Buen Pastor Shelter in western Ciudad Juárez, Mexico is that children are everywhere. They play in the hallways, in the kitchen, in the yard and throughout the establishment. But they never play on the sidewalk in front. They cannot even go there without being accompanied. It’s not prudent.
Some are cared for by women who are not their mothers, while fathers take to the streets, taking all the work they can get to earn enough money to feel safe and survive another six months in two years before their asylum claim was heard in a US Immigration Court.
Thanks to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPPs), more aptly known as “staying in Mexico,” nearly 60,000 people participated in eviction hearings in 2019.
Rather than uphold the internationally recognized right to seek asylum and allow asylum seekers to safely wait out their day in court with their loved ones, the administration has sought to deter black, brown and indigenous migration by banishing migrants to Mexican states currently under United States travel advisories. One state, Tamaulipas, shares a security rating with Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
Today, migrants still awaiting trial in northern communities such as Ciudad Juárez face robberies, assaults and other crimes, including kidnappings. In 2019, Ciudad Juarez reported nearly 1,500 homicidesthe highest number since 2011. When they finally face an immigration judge, their prospects are unlikely to remain brighter.
When I was a comptroller, I was struck by the opacity of “staying in Mexico” in the courts, while it is happening in plain sight. The El Paso courtroom where the fate of so many is decided is on the seventh floor of a municipal building shared by the IRS regional office.
At first, the whole judicial scene was an uncertain maze confusing judges, lawyers, lawyers and asylum seekers themselves. It became clear that there had been no foresight in the implementation of this program.
Since then, the policy of staying in Mexico has heavily impeded access potential advocates for asylum seekers: no “know your rights” training, no friends of the court, no unappointed lawyers who could step in to help, no due process. No one can stop an injustice he cannot see. Because applicants are stuck in dangerous areas, less than 3 percent of asylum seekers have US immigration attorneys by their side during their process. Typically, there is a judge, an interpreter, a Department of Homeland Security attorney, and the plaintiff.
For this reason, it is not surprising that since the MPP program came into effect, US judges have returned some refugees with strong asylum cases to countries where they could face death.
As an advocate working with these families on the border, I can assure you that in the face of lawlessness and injustice, border communities are doing their part. We push legislation, provide legal training in Mexico, offer humanitarian aid and educate the public.
But now we need you to demand dignity and care for asylum seekers.
We must end the MPP and the damage it causes: fast-track asylum programs that prevent due process and access to counsel, and the issuance of deportations in absentia. Rather, we need to educate judges on the root causes of mass migration and train them on the ethical treatment of trauma survivors.
Congress must stop inflate the budget of our immigrant law enforcement agencies and instead redirect resources to hire additional immigration judges and asylum officers, ending the outrageous backlog of over a million immigrants are currently awaiting their day in court.
But above all, we Americans need to look within ourselves and ask ourselves if what we are doing is consistent with the values contained in the 1980 Refugee Act: “… [I]It is the historic policy of the United States to meet the urgent needs of those persecuted in their countries of origin, including, when necessary, humanitarian assistance for their care and maintenance in areas of asylum.
Are we a beacon of hope for the oppressed and dispossessed of the world, or are we just another level of hell that migrants must survive in their near impossible hope of finding a safe place for their families? A year after the MPP, while our unimaginable disregard for the plight of asylum seekers remains in Mexico, the solution remains within us.
Marisa Limón Garza is the deputy director of the Frontiers of Hope Institutewhich brings the perspective of Catholic social teaching to the realities of the US-Mexico border region.