EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – After witnessing last week’s reboot in El Paso of the “Remain in Mexico” program, members of a national advocacy group remain convinced it must end.

Asylum seekers made to wait in Mexico for U.S. court dates face the same dangers as they did two years ago, when the Trump administration started the Migrant Protection Protocols program, the advocates said.

“We tracked more than 1,500 attacks against people in the program when the Trump administration was implementing it. Likewise, this year – in 2021 –, we tracked more than 7,600 kidnappings and other attacks against migrants stranded in Mexico,” said Julia Neusner, associate attorney for refugee protection for the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights First.

Neusner and a colleague last week followed the first groups of asylum seekers placed on MPP from their handoff by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Stanton Street Bridge in El Paso to the shelter in Juarez where Mexican government officials took them after processing.

Some of the Cubans, Central and South Americans walked over to Juarez had been in CBP custody just a few days while others had been flown to El Paso after being detained elsewhere for a week or more.

Julia Neusner

“When we were conducting the interviews, some people in the program reported mistreatment prior to being expelled […] but the most common complaint we heard is they were not given access to phone calls at all. Their families were worried about them, and they could not tell their families of their whereabouts, which was very distressing to them,” Neusner said.

The migrants said they were told their families had been contacted, but they said they found out otherwise when they got access to a cell phone in Juarez.

“People were very upset because CBP took all their belongings when they arrived and issued them sweat suits with slip-on shoes and did not allow them to shower except when they first arrived. They spend four or five days in the same undergarments, in the same clothes without being able to shower,” Neusner said.

The attorney says MPP got to an awkward start, as Mexico initially declined to take custody of them because CBP did not present completed health questionnaires for each migrant. She said the agents came back with the questionnaires, but that the migrants later told her they were not asked the specific questions on the form and that the paper was in English, which they don’t speak or understand.

Border Report reached out to CBP and the Department of Homeland Security for comment and is awaiting a response. In the past, CBP has responded to allegations by encouraging migrants to file a formal complaint when an incident happens so it can be investigated.

MPP program expansion feared

Faced with huge migrant caravans from Central America and a growing uptick in unauthorized migration, the Trump administration created the “Remain in Mexico” policy. While the Border Patrol continued to apprehend and expel economic migrants, the MPP program sent back to Mexico some 70,000 people who said they were fleeing crime and political persecution and expressed a credible fear of returning to their countries.

Migration fell with the hardline approach. President Biden did away with MPP upon taking office. But a successful lawsuit from Texas and Missouri forced him to reinstate MPP and advocates have questioned his resolve to find other ways to end it now that he’s facing a bigger migrant surge than Trump ever did.

In fact, some think he will just expand it.

So far, only single men have been place on MPP, but that’s the way the Trump administration started before expanding it to include families, some with small children.

“The Biden administration has said that families are eligible (to be placed in MPP), including families with small children and we expect it will soon be expanded to families with small children,” Neusner said.

Julian Neusner: Remain in Mexico could expand to include families with children

As of this week, the Mexican government is working with international aid organizations such as the UN, Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration on the care and transportation of MPP participants to shelters.

But advocates on both sides of the border question how long the asylum seekers will be able to stay in shelters given these are almost full due to the arrival of Mexicans from rural communities displaced by drug wars.

“I don’t believe that it’s possible to implement this program in a way that’s humane. It’s been comprehensively documented that the migrants are systemically targeted for kidnappings and other attacks” in Mexico, Neusner said. “MPP puts people in danger because it requires them to return multiple times to the border to attend court hearings. In the past, we have seen criminal organizations prey on (them). […] Many have been kidnapped on the way to their hearings or coming back.”

Even if they cartels don’t grab them, the asylum seekers face economic hardship in Mexico and barriers to legal advice to present a solid case in U.S. immigration court.

“It’s very difficult to find U.S. lawyers willing to take MPP program cases because of the logistical barrier of meeting with clients who are in Mexico. It’s very difficult to collect evidence and receive communication from the court when you don’t have a stable address. People in MPP are moving from shelter to shelter,” the lawyer said.

Neusner said it’s best to process asylum claims with the petitioner staying in the United States.

Lawyer: Let asylum seekers stay in U.S.; many already have friends and family here

“There has been research showing the vast majority of people to come seeking asylum have friends and family in the U.S. with whom they can safely stay while their cases are adjudicated,” she said. “The people we spoke to this week … are scared, they’re overwhelmed, they’re in a new city that they’ve never been before and now they’ll have to support themselves for months while their claim is adjudicated.”