48,000 Asylum Seekers Have Been Put in Harm’s Way by the Trump Administration

As of this week, the Trump administration has forcibly returned over 48,000 asylum-seekers to await their U.S. immigration court dates in some of the most violent cities in the world. Many have been kidnapped, assaulted, extorted—or worse.

Their suffering is the direct result of one of the administration’s most devastating attacks to asylum, the perversely-named Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)—more appropriately dubbed by advocates the Migrant Persecution Protocols.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began implementing MPP in January of this year. And, like many of the Trump administration’s policies, it is being challenged in the courts. On Monday, advocates argued their case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, calling for the policy to be immediately halted.

(Creative Commons: Peg Hunter)

MPP—also referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy—requires asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings. There are limited exceptions; individuals who fear danger in Mexico are not supposed to be returned, nor are pregnant women, or individuals with serious medical issues. The Trump Administration claims to provide a screening process to identify those who should be exempt from the process.

However, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and immigration judges presiding over MPP returnees’ hearings routinely fail to ask asylum seekers whether they are in fact afraid to return to Mexico and subsequently refer them for the appropriate screenings. Those who are referred are forced to meet a standard that has been described by asylum officers as “all but impossible.” As a result, those who do express fear—even those who have suffered egregious harm in Mexico—are often sent back anyway. 

The program was first launched at the U.S. port of entry in San Ysidro and has since expanded dramatically. The Trump administration is now returning approximately 3,000 people a week.

The policy’s impact on migrants seeking asylum has been devastating: To date, there have been over 340 public reports of rape, kidnapping, assault and other violent abuses against asylum-seekers forcibly returned under the MPP—a figure that likely represents just the tip of the iceberg.

Under MPP, asylum-seekers have been returned to some of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, many dominated by cartels and other criminal groups that systematically target them. Cartels routinely station themselves at U.S. ports of entry and pursue asylum-seekers as soon as they arrive. For these groups, vulnerable returnees represent a lucrative new source of revenue. Kidnappings have doubled in the city of Juárez since the MPP program was launched at the port of entry in neighboring El Paso.

In July, DHS began returning asylum seekers to the cities of Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, located in the violence-ridden state of Tamaulipas. The U.S. State Department warns citizens against travel to Tamaulipas and has assigned the state the same “Category 4” advisory level reserved for war zones. Asylum-seekers sent to Tamaulipas report that they are afraid to go outside.

Disturbingly, Mexican authorities, including immigration agents, are frequently complicit in abuses against migrants, including MPP returnees. Earlier this summer, a Honduran woman returned under the MPP was abducted by police officers and handed over to an organized criminal group, who sexually assaulted her and forced her mother to pay an exorbitant ransom. 

Compounding the situation is the fact that most asylum-seekers returned to Mexico are left to fend for themselves, with no place to stay and little more than the clothes on their backs—leaving them even more vulnerable to violence. Shelters in border towns are completely overwhelmed, and many returnees are forced to sleep on the streets. Hundreds of asylum-seekers are currently living in a squalid outdoor encampment in Matamoros. Among those stranded is a woman who attempted to return to the United States when, at eight and a half months pregnant, she began experiencing contractions. After crossing the Rio Grande, she was apprehended by DHS, provided medication to stop her contractions, and immediately sent back to her makeshift tent where, days later, she went into labor. Last week, she led 16 other pregnant women in filing a formal complaint against the agency.

Asylum-seekers returned to Mexico also face the very real risk of being sent back to their home countries by Mexican immigration authorities, who have illegally deported MPP returnees with pending U.S. immigration cases. Traumatized by the violence in Mexico and terrified of being returned to the horrors they have fled, many desperate asylum-seekers have tried to reenter the United States, resorting to notoriously dangerous migratory routes. Multiple women and children returned under the MPP have drowned in the Rio Grande while attempting to cross the border again.

In addition to putting vulnerable individuals in danger, MPP has imposed near insurmountable challenges to asylum-seekers in navigating their U.S. immigration proceedings. Their precarious circumstances—being across the border, often lacking a fixed address—make it exceedingly difficult for returnees to obtain legal representation, the single most important factor in determining whether an asylum seeker will win or lose their case. A mere 1.3 percent of asylum seekers returned to Mexico have been able to find an attorney.

And an array of logistical, financial, and safety challenges make it difficult for many asylum-seekers to even appear for their court dates. Among other obstacles, DHS recently began ordering asylum-seekers to show up for their hearings at as early as 3 a.m., forcing them to travel through dangerous border cities in the dead of night. Unsurprisingly, MPP returnees are missing their court dates—and being ordered deported in absentia—at significantly higher rates than asylum-seekers living safely in the United States.

Making matters worse, the Trump administration has actively prevented returnees from meeting with attorneys and legal services groups prior to their MPP hearings. The court proceedings themselves have devolved into chaos, with immigration judges hearing dozens of individual MPP cases in single, mass hearings. In newly erected “tent courts,” asylum-seekers are being forced to communicate with immigration judges through videoconference, an approach that presents additional due process concerns. It should be of no surprise that since the program commenced in January, the United States has granted asylum to just two MPP returnees.

In February, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and our organization, the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, filed a lawsuit, Innovation Law Lab v. McAleenan, on behalf of some of the first asylum seekers returned under the MPP. We won a preliminary injunction against the policy in April, but the Trump Administration immediately appealed and secured a stay from the Ninth Circuit, giving the government the green light to continue implementing MPP.

On Monday, we and our co-counsel were back in court, arguing that the Ninth Circuit should reinstate the injunction.

Whether or not the policy will be permitted to continue is now in the hands of three Ninth Circuit judges. We believe that the law and the facts are in our favor and hope for a decision halting MPP. Every day that this policy is allowed to stand, the administration is endangering thousands of lives.

About and

Karen Musalo is a law professor and director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She has litigated major landmark cases on behalf of women asylum seekers fleeing gender-based violence and published extensively on refugee issues and conditions in Central America which force women to flee and seek protection.
Brianna Krong serves as communications and advocacy coordinator at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, where she develops public education and advocacy strategies to advance the rights of women, children and LGBTQ asylum seekers in the United States.