The “Remain in Mexico” policy regarding asylum seekers, which we first told you about on January 25, is underway in San Diego. The policy requires that most undocumented migrants petitioning for asylum at the U.S. southern border must remain in Mexico while their cases are heard. (Unaccompanied minor children, for example, are exempt.) The U.S. has had to take this step to prevent fraudulent asylum seekers from simply disappearing into the country after their initial processing, ignoring orders to appear in court at a later date.
As this is a government program, it is not surprising that so far its implementation has been called “chaotic.”
The “Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP),” to use its official name, applies to undocumented aliens apprehended while attempting to cross in the United States from Mexico or who present themselves at the border, requesting asylum. Those would-be immigrants are given a case number and returned to Mexico, which has agreed to appropriately and safely house them until their cases are adjudicated. Those needing to appear in person before an immigration judge are transported under the watch of “detention officers” from the border to the courtroom and back, after their hearings.
At a hearing, the asylum seekers, most of whom are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, speak with a judge, and typically declare that, just as they were afraid to remain in their home countries, they are now also afraid to go back to Mexico.
An article on a Tucson television station’s website dated March 24 described the courtroom events on March 19, a typical day in the MPP program.
“As they met with lawyers, the detention officers slipped in and out of the room, unsettling immigrants,” the article reads. “‘Seeing detention officers scares clients,'” explained an immigration attorney, although the officers are dressed in civilian clothes.
Going back to Mexico scares them as well.
“‘I don’t want to return to Mexico, your honor,’ an asylum seeker pleaded.”
Mexico is not only frightening, they allege. It’s also confusing. One as yet un-lawyered immigrant complained when presented with his legal aid options : “‘I was confused. I don’t know how to read and write. It becomes difficult. In Mexico, it’s even more complicated. It’s more complicated than if I were here.”
Complicated it is, no doubt. Logistically, migrants being housed in Mexico must present themselves at the San Ysidro port of entry on the morning of their hearing, where they are met by detention officers and processed. Then they are transported 18 miles to the federal courthouse in San Diego. This takes a full four hours before the migrants can be ready to appear before their judge. Only afternoon sessions are possible, as a result. After their hearings, the petitioners are allowed to meet with their American lawyers before being returned to Mexico, where they wait for their next appearance.
Some of the migrants appearing in court on the day described in the article also have another role in the overall proceedings. They are also “plaintiffs in a case challenging the MPP program,” in effect suing the country they hope to be a part of.
Although MPP is being expanded across the border to ports of entry such as El Paso, the wheels of justice as always turn slowly. As of March 12, only 240 migrants had been returned to Mexico under the protocols, where they wait until a final ruling. Given that U.S. immigration courts are facing an 800,000-case backlog, that’s not many.
Eventually, if the ultimate fate of that 240 and the ones who come after them holds true to past history, 90 percent of their asylum petitions will be rejected. Meanwhile, a lot of effort and not a little chaos will have ensued.