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One year later: Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ is still cruel and catastrophic

By Charanya Krishnaswami, Amnesty International USA’s Advocacy Director for the Americas

A year ago today, human rights observers from Amnesty International were in Tijuana when the first asylum-seeker was returned there under a cruel new experiment the Trump administration had disingenuously named the “Migrant Protection Protocols.”

Historically, people seeking safety at the U.S. border had been allowed to make their claims from within the United States once they expressed a credible fear of persecution in their home countries. Now, the Trump administration was threatening to dismantle this system by instead forcibly returning asylum-seekers to Mexico, where they would be forced to spend months, potentially even years, in precarious, perilous conditions as they fought for asylum in the United States. We and other human rights organizations had long documented the high risks of danger asylum-seekers face in Mexico, particularly in the border regions where the U.S. would now force them to wait.

One year later, that new experiment has proven every bit as cruel and catastrophic as we feared. Since January 2019, nearly 60,000 people have been forcibly returned to Mexico under the program, including thousands of families and young children. There have been 816 documented cases of murder, sexual assault, extortion, kidnapping, and other serious violence perpetrated against people entered in the program; asylum-seekers are easy targets for cartels, who routinely kidnap and torture them while methodically ticking through their phone contacts to extort U.S.-based family members. The program has demolished due process, purposely keeping asylum-seekers far from the legal help they desperately need: fewer than 5% of returnees currently have counsel, even though their proceedings are often a matter of life or death.

Though the program unilaterally rewrites asylum law, is premised on a statutory provision that was never meant to apply to asylum-seekers, and has paved the way for massive human rights violations, both the courts and Congress have failed to stop it. In the wake of their inaction, the program has steadily expanded across the entire southwest border.

Last fall, the administration even committed physical infrastructure to the program: secretive tent courts along the border in Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, constructed exclusively for the proceedings of people forced back to Mexico. For months, the courts were completely shut off from public view — even though public access is meant to serve as a check on the courts’ integrity and fairness. Even though the asylum-seekers having their cases heard in these courts are being returned to areas of Mexico so dangerous the State Department warns its own citizens not to travel there. The risks are so grave that thousands of asylum-seekers now sleep in an open-air tent camp in Matamoros, just steps from the Brownsville port of entry, fearing to go any further in.

After months of advocacy by Amnesty International and other rights groups, these secretive courts recently opened — somewhat — to the public. On the eve of the first anniversary of the program, I sat in a makeshift courtroom that was actually a trailer where asylum-seekers were having their cases heard. In many ways, what I saw mirrored the heartbreaking injustice I’d witnessed in the brick-and-mortar courts in California and Texas that hear these cases. Dozens of exhausted, disoriented parents with young children sitting on their laps. Hardly anyone with a lawyer by their side. A man begging to be allowed to mail in his asylum application to avoid the treacherous trek back to court, where he’d been threatened by kidnappers never to show his face again. Equally as haunting was we didn’t see: people who likely should have been in court didn’t appear at all, leading us to wonder where they were and what harm had potentially befallen them. They would all be ordered deported in their absence.

In other ways, though, procedures within the tent courts are even more alarming. Hearings are conducted entirely via video, creating enormous emotional distance between the judge and the asylum-seeker. Public access is still limited and deeply flawed: on the days I observed, private security guards determined which courtrooms we could access and which we could not. They refused to let us observe asylum-seekers’ final hearings, where their ultimate fates are decided — even when we’d obtained prior consent. (Notably, DHS officials told us this later that this was a mistake and that we should have been allowed in, telling of the confusion and ambiguity that characterizes procedures in these courts and in this program.) The courts, which literally sit on the ports of entry, occupy an interstitial, neither-here-nor-there space, designed to push back asylum-seekers to Mexico with maximum ease, absolving the U.S. of any responsibility for them, as though they were never here at all.

Last Friday, we were provided an official tour of the Laredo court. At one point, we were led through a swinging gate which sits just to the side of the bridge connecting Mexico and the United States. This is where officials drop off asylum-seekers after court concludes. We asked if U.S. officials make any provisions for their safety before sending them away. The official conducting the tour responded simply: “Not on our end, no.” Later, another official accompanying us described hearing gunshots across that very bridge where his agency dumps asylum-seekers daily.

In other words: out of sight, out of mind. Like the tent courts, the forced return program itself exploits a neither-here-nor-there dynamic, allowing both the United States and Mexico to disclaim responsibility for asylum-seekers’ suffering and point fingers at each other’s governments. The day we toured the courts, CNN announced that the U.S. would maximize use of these new border courts, shifting as many returnees’ cases onto these dockets as possible.

Secretive border courts cannot be how we welcome asylum-seekers. Forcing people into danger cannot be how we treat those in search of safety. In the face of the courts’ and Congress’s inaction, it is up to us, the public, to sustain public pressure to stop this unlawful program and ensure that the tens of thousands of people already subjected to it are redressed for the injustices they’ve suffered.

One year of this program is already far too long.

Here are some immediate ways you can take action:

- Call your representative and ask them to cosponsor Rep. Veronica Escobar’s Asylum Seeker Protection Act (H.R. 2662), which would defund MPP, and Sen. Leahy’s and Rep. Lofgren’s Refugee Protection Act (S. 2936 / H.R. 5210), which would end the policy and restore protections for asylum-seekers that have been destroyed.

- Educate the presidential candidates about this policy through Twitter, Facebook, and in town halls.

- Visit a court to observe these proceedings; document what you see and share with others. Cases on the MPP docket are currently being heard in:

o Texas (San Antonio, El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville)

o California (San Diego)

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