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June 20, 2020

CBP Blocking “Migrant Protection Protocols” Fear Screenings

June 20, 2020

Dear Acting Secretary Wolf and Acting Commissioner Morgan:

We write to express our urgent concern that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and Border Patrol agents are using a much-criticized Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order to block individuals facing life-threatening dangers while stranded for months in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) from receiving fear screening interviews. Leading public health experts have concluded that the order’s public health rationale is specious and that the administration can use effective, evidence-based public health measures to safely and humanely process and parole asylum seekers, including those in MPP.

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Asylum seekers and migrants returned to Mexico by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under MPP are frequently targeted for kidnapping, rape, assault, and extortion. An asylum seeker returned to Tijuana was murdered there in December 2019. As of May 13, 2020, there were at least 1,114 public reports of violent attacks on individuals returned to Mexico under MPP, including 265 kidnappings or attempted kidnappings of children. These tallies are a gross understatement of the true toll of violence against asylum seekers and migrants subjected to MPP given the limited number of individuals who are able to speak with reporters and human rights monitors, and even more so in recent months during the pandemic. 

However, CBP officers and Border Patrol agents are now refusing to allow fear screenings for individuals newly placed in MPP, including Cuban and Nicaraguan asylum seekers, and blocking individuals already returned to Mexico under MPP from fear interviews at ports of entry. In late April, a CBP spokesperson reportedly claimed that MPP fear screening interviews are available under the CDC order but on a “case-by-case” basis. To the knowledge of the undersigned organizations, which seek to assist asylum seekers in MPP along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, CBP has permitted only two people in MPP to have fear screenings since the CDC order was issued. On June 16, DHS and the Department of Justice extended the cancellation of MPP hearings through July 17, meaning that by the time hearings resume people in MPP will have been prevented from even requesting protection for at least four months.

While the MPP screening process is deeply flawed and lacks basic safeguards Congress created to prevent the deportation of asylum seekers to persecution through the credible fear screening process, these interviews are the only means for people whose safety and lives are at risk in MPP to be removed from the program and permitted to continue their asylum process in safety from within the United States. Conditioning preliminary access to refugee protection on the discretion of an individual border officer violates U.S. refugee and immigration laws and treaty-based obligations. It also contradicts the administration’s assertion to the U.S. Supreme Court, in arguing for the legality of MPP, that fear screenings are available “at any time.”

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