TMaria, an asylum seeker, has been to court twice in El Paso (Texas) and officials sent her home to Mexico twice. For three months, Maria has struggled to get herself removed from the U.S. government’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico” policy, a program that has officially ended.
Maria, aged 43, fled Colombia from Colombia on her own in May, after she was threatened with death by organised criminal groups. She had refused to pay extortion fee and received threats of violence. Her elderly parents were her last hope to reunite with her niece in New York City. But after she arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, she was placed into MPP and sent back to Mexico in June, where she now lives in a shelter for asylum seeking women in Ciudad Juárez, a city notorious for crime against migrants and women.
“It was extremely hard to leave [my parents] because I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to see them again,” Maria, who TIME is identifying by her middle name because she fears for the safety of her family in Colombia, tells TIME in Spanish. “So I already came from Colombia depressed and in a bad way, and when they put me in [MPP]… Well, everything that I fled in Colombia I’m scared of facing here in Mexico.”
The Biden Administration officially terminated the controversial Trump-era policy—which requires people with open asylum cases to wait in Mexico while their case is adjudicated in the U.S.— on Aug. 8, after a go-ahead from the Supreme Court. Maria, along with hundreds of other people, are stuck in Mexico waiting for their permits to travel to the U.S. due to a new process by the Department of Homeland Security. This requires MPP members to attend the next court hearing before being removed from the program. The new system is a significant departure from the way the agency used to terminate MPPs in the past. This process allowed individuals to exit the program immediately without having to appear before a judge.
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“When you say [MPP is] over, it’s a little deceptive because these cases are still going on. That’s the problem,” says John Balli, managing attorney at the Laredo, Texas office of RAICES, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy and legal services organization. “I think the Biden Administration, they got caught a little bit flat-footed on how they were going to handle ending this.”
In 2021, the Biden Administration attempted to stop MPP. However, conservative lawyers general sued the Administration and a Texas District Judge ordered that the Administration continue to operate the program as the case progressed through Texas courts. In the roughly six-month period of 2021 before the Texas judge’s ruling, asylum seekers enrolled in the first iteration of MPP could fill out a form online, receive COVID-19 testing, and be removed from the program to resume their asylum cases while living in the U.S. By the end of May 2021, more than 10,000 people in MPP were removed from the program this way, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization at Syracuse University. At this time there is no similar process. Instead, asylum seekers from MPP must wait until the next U.S. Court date to be allowed to leave the program. Some will have to wait many more weeks, or even months.
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DHS claims that the new system will be more efficient than the initial wind-down of 2021.. “Most individuals currently enrolled in MPP have court cases scheduled in the coming weeks,” a DHS spokesperson tells TIME in a statement. “By contrast, during the Biden Administration’s 2021 wind-down of the last Administration’s implementation of MPP, DHS found that many individuals did not have court dates, resulting in a costly and slow effort to identify where individuals were and coordinate their entry for immigration proceedings.”
According to the Department of Homeland Security data, more than 71,000 were enrolled into MPP under Trump’s Administration. As of July 31st, nearly 12,000 additional people had enrolled in the MPP program. This includes Maria. DHS data shows that there are 1,115 MPP cases still open to people in Mexico waiting for their case.
Maria’s next court date is in early September. She’ll show up in El Paso and make her case before an immigration judge— and like most people in MPP, she will do so without the help of a lawyer. She hopes then she’ll finally be removed from MPP.
‘This is not a game’
Even when migrants have a scheduled court date in the U.S., it’s far from assured that they’ll be removed from MPP or granted asylum.
DHS reports that 88% of those who had completed MPP cases since December have lost in court. They have also been removed from the U.S. According to DHS, 85 percent of the cases lost were due to people not attending court dates. Immigration advocates and lawyers claim that this is because people are unable or unwilling to travel from Mexico to U.S. ports. DHS claims that only 63 out of 254 cases involving MPP have been resolved on merits. (DHS did not answer TIME’s question of whether those in MPP who missed court dates will have their cases reopened.)
“It’s stacked against them,” Balli, the RAICES lawyer, says. “It’s already hard enough to win and then when you’re Monterrey, Mexico living in a shelter, or homeless… it’s impossible to properly prepare and have the documents necessary, the documents that the judges want to see, and the evidence they want to see, to approve an asylum case.”
TIME spoke with many lawyers and immigrant advocates who questioned the Biden Administration’s ability to release nearly 21,000 Ukrainians at the U.S.–Mexico border in April, an average of 700 per day. However, they have not established a comparable expedited process for MPP-subscribers. The current wind-down of MPP “feels slow, stalled, and I’m not going to lie to you, at this point, a little cruel,” says Priscilla Orta, supervising attorney for Project Corazon, a program by Lawyers for Good Government, a human rights advocacy organization that runs pro bono legal service programs. Orta said that one of her teenage clients in MPP told her she was sex assaulted in Matamoros as she waited for her court date. “Does DHS not sense the urgency?” Orta says. “This is not a game… What if another person is hurt, assaulted, beaten, dies, while they’re waiting?”
Maria, while she waits to see if she is removed from MPP’s office, has turned to self help books to stay motivated. She’s reading Caminando Con Mi MenteSantiago Zapata is a Colombian author who wrote “Walking With My Mind” about her journey to overcome hardship and become a key player in her own life. “I love reading so many stories,” Maria says, “but especially the ones that take me to a good place.”
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