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June 12, 2019

The Trump Administration’s Migrant Persecution Protocols

Coauthored with Victoria Rossi

On Thursday, we met Blanca*, who fled homophobic violence in Guatemala with her partner Laura*, and Laura’s son to seek asylum in the United States. “When we told [Border Patrol] we were a couple, the officers in the green uniforms told us that if we weren’t married, we couldn’t stay together,” Blanca said. Laura and her son were released, but Blanca was expelled to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where she must wait until an initial immigration court hearing in July.

“No one ever asked if I was afraid of being in Mexico,” Blanca said. “They just gave me papers to sign. That’s it.”

Last Friday, after threats by the Trump Administration to impose tariffs, the Mexican government apparently agreed to an expansion of the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) - the policy the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used to expel over ten thousand Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran asylum seekers since late January. There they must wait, often in serious danger and largely cut off from the attorneys who could help them apply for and receive asylum.

Blanca was returned to Mexico after spending 20 days separated from her family in Border Patrol holding cells. In her first hours in Juarez, she was walking with other asylum seekers when a group of men followed them, then robbed them. Blanca sought safety at the main migrant shelter, but it was at capacity, so she ended up in a rented room with other asylum seekers at a hotel catering to migrants. Later, she and other asylum seekers were again attacked and beaten by a group of men. “After what happened, I hardly ever go out,” she said. “I’m really scared of the situation here.” Other asylum seekers forced back into Mexico have been kidnapped, raped, robbed, and extorted.

On Thursday, in a seemingly quiet section of Juarez, we met Karen* at a church that runs an informal shelter for asylum seekers. Gang violence forced her to flee Guatemala with her partner, two-year-old son, father, 8-year-old brother, and twin 5-year-old sisters. They knew they couldn’t stay in Guatemala after gang members showered their house with bullets because her father had reported the gang to the police for threatening another family member.

Karen and her family had to wait for weeks in Juarez on the “list” due to DHS restrictions on the number of asylum seekers processed at ports of entry. In early May, their number was called. But when they entered the port, they didn’t find the protection they had expected. An officer told Karen’s father that it was “boring” to hear about “threats” in Guatemala. Another officer repeatedly ignored Karen’s requests for diapers for her baby. After days in holding cells, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) sent them back to Mexico.

Karen fears for the safety and health of her family. The day before our visit, she heard gunfire outside the church. It turned out that a man was shot to death in the middle of the day. In Guatemala, her brother lost his left eye to cancer. Now with a prosthetic eye and in precarious health, he needs medication and monitoring. But they have no access to healthcare, work permission, secure housing, or other any support from the Mexican government, despite the Trump Administration’s claim that the Mexican government had promised to provide humanitarian assistance to “returned” asylum seekers.

This family shouldn’t have been placed in MPP in the first place. Karen’s father had repeatedly asked for access to the boy’s medication, so CBP officers were aware of his health problems, and the policy’s own guidelines exempt people with “known physical/mental health issues.”

Karen prays that at least her brother and sisters will be allowed to stay in the United States after the family’s hearing this week, even if it means being separated. But they’ve not been able to find a lawyer who could help them explain the harm they face or present their asylum claim, because legal service providers in El Paso don’t have capacity to represent the thousands of asylum seekers returned there or are unable to take cases in Mexico because of security concerns.

As Blanca, Karen, and dozens of other Central American asylum seekers were telling us how MPP threatens their lives and ability to receive asylum, the Trump Administration was seeking to expel even more under a policy that violates U.S. law and international obligations to protect refugees from harm.

That’s why we’re calling MPP what it really is: the Migrant Persecution Protocols.

*pseudonyms