On a cold mid-April morning, two Central American families got out of an Uber and joined the long line of pedestrians waiting to cross the Paso del Norte Bridge from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso. Others online were on their way to school, work or errands in El Paso – the daily life of binational cities. But these two families, each made up of a father, a pregnant mother and a child, had a different destination: the American immigration court.
The day before, the two young fathers, Edwin Escobar from El Salvador and Ronaldo Garcia from Guatemala, said that after leaving their church for food, they were abducted by three men at gunpoint, held for three hours, beaten and robbed. The men broke Garcia’s finger and stole the five pesos – about 25 cents – that he had in his name. Now, as the parents guided their children to the international bridge, they spotted something both familiar and alarming: a man and a woman watching them, talking on the phone and looking around. “When we were kidnapped, we saw people acting like that,” Edwin said. He said the suspicious man followed them into a bathroom and onto the deck, and only left after transforming into U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. The families feel lucky to have been able to attend court that day.
The Garcias and Escobars, whose surnames have been changed, are among the first group of asylum seekers to return to El Paso for hearings since the Trump administration implemented a controversial new policy requiring some asylum seekers to asylum to stay in the violent Mexican border towns. as their cases are heard in the United States, immigrants, shelter operators and human rights groups have warned that the policy, called the Migrant protection protocols, endangers the lives of migrants and deprives them of due process. The MPP is currently in place in El Paso and California, although DHS has announced plans to expand the program to the southwest border. Opponents are challenging the plan in court; On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on whether to issue an injunction to shut down the program, at least temporarily. More … than a thousand asylum seekers were returned to Mexico under the MPP, including four to five hundred from El Paso in just over two weeks.
On April 17 and 18, during hearings in the El Paso court for 42 asylum seekers, including 15 children, the main concerns of critics of the “stay in Mexico” plan came to light: migrants faced violence in Mexico and had little or no access to lawyers; the already limited humanitarian aid network was strained; and the court system was chaotic at times – even the judge admitted he didn’t know all the rules of the program.
During the hearings, Immigration Judge Nathan Herbert explained that under the MPP, the decision to send asylum seekers back to Mexico to await a decision on their ultimate fate rests with the Department of Homeland Security, not him. His job was to decide whether they would be deported to their home country. He acknowledged that the MPP hearings were “uncharted territory”. For two days, he repeatedly tried to put asylum seekers at ease and encouraged them to ask questions. He wished a little girl a happy birthday after her mother told him she was going to be three in a few days. He made a Spanish interpreter available in the courtroom, and he twice telephoned an interpreter from Quiché, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala. Herbert also assured that every asylum seeker in court has had their cases reset for the month of May to give them time to meet with a lawyer, if they can find one.
Despite Herbert’s accommodating style, the limitations of the MPP were obvious. Of the 42 people on the list, only the Garcias and the Escobars were represented by lawyers, volunteers with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Centerwho took pity on pregnant women.
During the first round of hearings on April 17, several parents pleaded with Herbert not to be sent back to Juarez, where many said they were robbed, or worse. “Yesterday I went out [from a Ciudad Juárez shelter] to buy my lunch, and a man tried to take my son,” said Riccy, a 24-year-old Honduran woman who was holding her 4-year-old son, Binsel. She didn’t provide more details and Herbert didn’t ask. “If you leave [the shelter] to buy food or something, they tell me to hold my daughter’s hand tightly because there are bad people there,” Yessenia, 31, said of her 7-year-old son. years.
On the same day, Edwin and Ronaldo told their kidnapping story to Herbert. “I don’t want to go back to Mexico because I don’t feel safe and they broke my finger,” said Ronaldo, who kept his swollen right index finger elevated throughout the three-hour hearing.
MPP guidelines calling on immigration officials to provide additional screening for any asylum seeker who expresses fear of being sent to Mexico. The onus is on the migrants to raise the issue, and he or she must prove that it is “more likely than not” that they will be persecuted in Mexico. Prosecutors told Herbert that every person or family who appears in court on April 17 or 18 will receive a fear interview, whether or not they have expressed fear. But when Rivas asked Herbert if his clients were allowed to have an attorney present for their fear interviews, the judge replied, “I don’t know.” Later, Rivas said she was allowed to call her clients’ interviews but was not allowed to be physically present.
During the hearings, asylum seekers repeated a number of common concerns. Several said they couldn’t hire a lawyer because they were limited in shelters to two three-minute calls a week. Several said they were told that their shelter beds would not be available to them when they returned due to high demand. Many said their sixteen-day Mexican tourist visas would soon expire, possibly subjecting them to deportation by the Mexican government. Herbert listened to the concerns but reminded them that the decision on where they would go after the hearing was out of his hands.
On Saturday, only the Garcias, the Escobars and another family, a father and son from Guatemala who needed a Quiché interpreter at the hearing – were released in El Paso. Rivas said she received no explanation for their release. The Escobars are now with family in Maryland, the Garcias with relatives in New York, and the third family is in Boston.
As for the fate of the other families: the Escobars said that during their detention, they saw six families being sent back to Mexico on Good Friday. Due to the confusion in Juarez, families were then left homeless, realizing their worst fears, Rivas said. (Shelter officials have promised to find space for all MPP families in the future.)
Homeland Security officials did not respond to many questions. Instead, the agency provided a series of links to descriptions and guidelines of the MPP.
The pace of MPP hearings in El Paso is expected to increase this the week. Migrant advocates warn that the justice system is unprepared for what is to come. Taylor Levy, the legal coordinator for the nonprofit El Paso Annunciation House, served as a “friend of the court” at MPP hearings, trying to ensure migrants at least got all their papers, and she drew parallels to the family separation crisis. “It was so incredibly difficult to try to represent people from a legal point of view when all they cared about was “Where’s my kid?” And here, trying to talk to people in more depth about their cases, a lot of what they wanted to talk about is, “Don’t you understand? I have nowhere to sleep tomorrow night and I am in danger.