The Trump administration’s controversial asylum policy, Migrant Protection Protocols, faces mounting criticism from Senate and House representatives concerned by reports that migrants in the program have been robbed, beaten and sexually assaulted in Mexico.
The program, commonly known as Remain in Mexico, forces asylum seekers to wait for their immigration court cases in Mexico. More than 55,000 asylum seekers have been sent back through this program.
While in Mexico, migrants wait as long as 10 months for the court cases to be adjudicated. During that time, migrants face homelessness, have little access to legal aid, and live in some of Mexico’s most dangerous border cities.
On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein cited some of the San Diego Union-Tribune’s reporting on Remain in Mexico in a letter requesting the Senate Committee on the Judiciary hold a hearing before the end of the year on “the highly concerning treatment of families and children subject to the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program.”
Feinstein’s letter was sent the same day that the House Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation and Operations held a public hearing on human rights issues surrounding Remain in Mexico.
During that hearing, Michael Knowles, president of the labor union representing asylum officers tasked with implementing part of Remain in Mexico, described the policy as, “illegal,” “immoral,” and “the basis for human rights abuses on behalf of our nation.”
“I don’t know a single asylum officer in the country who believes this is a good policy,” he told the subcommittee.
The Trump administration began implementing Remain in Mexico in January, first in San Diego and then throughout the southern border. The policy is meant to deter migrants from filing illegitimate asylum claims.
Administration officials have defended the policy despite mounting criticism.
On Nov. 15, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying Remain in Mexico “has been successful at every metric, improving the asylum process for more than 55,000 individuals.” That statement also stated that the program will continue to be effective “for the long term.”
Customs and Border Protection officials in San Diego also credited the program as part of the reason apprehensions along the border decreased this year.
“With increased infrastructure, programs like the Migrant Protection Protocols and support from foreign governments, we have seen a significant decrease in apprehensions over the last six months,” Kathleen Scudder, acting deputy chief patrol agent for the San Diego sector, told reporters during a November press conference.
However, during that same press conference, other officials noted that the “protections” part of Migrant Protection Protocols does not come from the United States. Instead, Mexico is tasked with protecting migrants.
“We’re not directly involved with that since that’s happening in Mexico,” said Pete Flores, director of field operations for CBP in San Diego. “But in our partnership and agreement with Mexico, they have agreed to provide those safeties.”
Advocates on the ground say that is not happening.
Erin Thorn Vela, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who provides pro bono legal help to migrants in Matamoros, told members of Congress during Tuesday’s hearing that “the horrors in Matamoros are almost endless.”
Vela has spent more than 200 hours speaking with asylum seekers in Matamoros and noted that she and her colleagues have spoken with more than 1,000 asylum seekers. Half of them have reported being kidnapped, extorted or raped while in Mexico.
“No one should be in this program,” Vela said. “Asylum seekers in Matamoros survive in flimsy tents and under tarps, they do not have adequate food or medicine.”
Treatment of migrants and asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border will likely face greater scrutiny Friday, when a different House subcommittee will hold a hearing in San Ysidro about the humanitarian aspects of current immigration enforcement.
Several members from the Congressional Black Caucus plan to attend the hearing in San Ysidro. They cited a San Diego Union-Tribune report on the death of a Cameroonian migrant in ICE custody as part of the reason for their visit to the border.
Solis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.