The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ program dwindles as more immigrants are flown to Guatemala or are quickly deported

Migrants are escorted to an airplane headed to Guatemala at Brownsville International Airport in Brownsville, Tex. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

BROWNSVILLE, Tex. — The flow of migrants being returned across the border into Mexico included more than 100 people a day here last fall. That stream of Central Americans, carrying papers stamped with a future date in U.S. immigration court, has now slowed to a trickle, with fewer than a dozen crossing back into Matamoros daily.

Immigration attorneys and migrant advocates say the Trump administration is phasing out its year-old Migrant Protection Protocols policy, also known as "Remain in Mexico," instead prioritizing newer, more restrictive programs that make qualifying for asylum in the United States extremely difficult.

Instead of allowing Central American migrants access to U.S. courts and having them wait in Mexican border towns, the government instead is quickly sending them to Guatemala to pursue asylum claims there. Instead of allowing Mexicans to stay in the United States to follow a lengthy court process, the Trump administration is fast-tracking deportation proceedings and pushing people out of the country within days.

“MPP is dying,” said Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer who represents Central American asylum seekers and has advocated for dozens of vulnerable migrants to be removed from the program and allowed into the United States. “And something worse is taking its place. Everything is changing.”

Trump is fulfilling his pledge to build fortress America — and running on it

Though data is scant, the result is nearly exactly what the Trump administration has been seeking: a reduction in the flow of migrants to the U.S. border. The tent camps in Mexican cities are dwindling and the flow of Central American migrants has dropped precipitously, in part because many asylum seekers say they do not want to end up in Guatemala and often now see the dangerous journey north as a fruitless risk.

Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Mark Morgan said Feb. 11 that the new initiatives are necessary to stop migrants from exploiting “loopholes in our legal framework” that previously allowed asylum seekers to fight their cases from inside the United States. Officials now say that practice — known as “catch and release” — has ended and that the majority of migrants they encounter are now placed in programs designed for rapid removal. The bulk of asylum claims, the administration has argued, are meritless.

With the MPP policy under court challenge — and having received a cool reception from federal judges — the administration has turned to alternatives that have become increasingly effective deterrents. The Trump administration said falling border apprehension numbers prove that its initiatives are working, discouraging travelers from embarking on the trip to the U.S. border and demonstrating that migrants have little chance of gaining asylum without solid evidence.

Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said the country received 2,000 migrants under the Remain in Mexico program in January — a sharp decline from approximately 12,000 in August. The camps along the border, such as in Matamoros, are home to mini-villages of hundreds of Cuban, Honduran, Guatemalan, Venezuelan and Salvadoran citizens living up against one another in tents on a spit of levee bound by the Rio Grande on one side and the streets of Matamoros on the other.

In the months they’ve been there, camp residents have organized themselves to meet everyday needs, building earthen stoves by mixing mud and water to make bricks, cutting mesquite branches to cook over fire, and digging out drainage trenches to keep the area from flooding. Tents are covered in tarp or sit on wooden pallets, and people rest on hammocks fashioned out of plastic bags.

The hum of playing children, the smell of burning wood and refuse, and the sound of sickness are as ubiquitous as the threat of robbery, assault and kidnappings. The austerity here is driving people away.

D’Cruz, of Lawyers for Good Government, had been trying to help a mother and her autistic 7-year-old son cross the border into the United States in recent days to escape the conditions, but border officials would not allow them in. Vidya Ramanathan, a doctor with Physicians for Human Rights who evaluated the child and others, said the camps are no place for many who are sent back there.

“They are at risk,” Ramanathan said. “They are clearly vulnerable.”

While there are still about 2,500 migrants waiting in the Matamoros encampment, fewer new families are arriving.

The programs beginning to supplant MPP — which has placed nearly 60,000 migrants in Mexican border cities to wait for court hearings — include one that sends detained Central Americans through the Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR). The goal of the program, which was first piloted in October in the El Paso sector, is to deport families within 10 days, during which time they make their cases via telephone interviews with asylum officers.

There is no publicly available government data on how many migrants have been placed in PACR, but CBP’s Morgan said during congressional hearings this week that about 2,500 migrants had been enrolled in the program. The directive permits U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to quickly determine if a person is eligible to seek asylum, and in such a way, attorneys say, that migrants have limited time to build their cases.

“Any access to counsel whatsoever is completely and totally cut off,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney in the Rio Grande Valley, where the program was expanded in late January.

Another administration program, the Asylum Cooperation Agreement, sends flights full of shackled Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers to Guatemala daily. So far, more than 600 people have been sent to the Central American country to seek asylum there under the agreement, but the vast majority end up abandoning their claims and going home to their countries of origin, according to Guatemalan immigration officials. Morgan confirmed this week about 1,000 asylum seekers have been sent to the country.

Thousands of asylum seekers waiting for court hearings remain in Mexico, where migrants have been kidnapped and assaulted and struggle to find food and shelter. Human rights organizations have documented dozens of cases of migrants falling prey to criminal organizations in northern Mexico and dire conditions in makeshift camps.

Some attorneys, like Goodwin, were able to travel to meet with their clients in Mexico to prepare cases and to attend their court hearings in the United States. Desperation in camps and shelters has been flourishing for months as migrant parents weigh whether to send their children across the border alone, turn back for home or pay the local cartel to cross illegally.

That’s the decision one Honduran asylum seeker in Matamoros said was agonizing him. The 43-year-old father declined to give his full name out of fear it would affect his chances of getting into the United States. He spent days fasting and praying over whether to send his 3-year-old son, Gabriel, across the bridge alone to U.S. border agents, who probably would take him into custody and send him to a children’s shelter. The father and son had arrived at the U.S. border in October and were sent back to Matamoros with an initial court date scheduled for June.

Without a clear mandate from God, the father decided to send the boy over the bridge at midday on Feb. 10, but the child returned. He tried again that evening, handing him over to a young woman and hiding in his tent so the boy would not be tempted to run back.

The father said he grew hopeless watching his camp-mates funnel in and out of the Justice Department’s tent courts across the border, trying to decipher documents in English, unsuccessfully dialing a court-provided list of legal providers and failing to get any closer to entering the United States. Other migrants told him about their efforts to prove their persecution in their home countries, only to be denied asylum and removed.

“It’s all a farce,” he said as he watched a video of his son driving a toy car at a shelter after he was taken into U.S. custody. The father is waiting for his wife — who entered the United States in April and has an asylum court date in Houston — to be reunited with the boy before he decides what to do next. “Every day, the measures against us grow more drastic. This is a sick plot to give us hope, but it’s all a lie.”

Pastor Abraham Barberi, whose church is in Matamoros, said that hopelessness has grown sharply since the end of January and that migrants are giving up their quests to reach the United States. He hears from more and more asylum seekers who are planning to abandon their final U.S. court hearings to avoid deportation and stay in Mexico.

“Now that most people have had their first court dates and seen what it is, they are realizing that the majority are not going to get through,” Barberi said, noting that some are opting to cross illegally in the hope of not being apprehended at all. “I talked to six people today who said they are sending their children across and are crossing the river themselves.”

Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute said it is logical that the administration would turn to other tools and wind down MPP because of the massive amount of resources it requires across three or four government agencies. The asylum camps have created unwanted tension with Mexico. But she said there has been no transparency in how the federal government has implemented the new initiatives or how it is applying the policies in individual cases.

“This is the black hole part of it,” Pierce said. “We don’t know who they are subjecting to these different policies and programs and why they are being subjected to them.”

Little is known about how these “pathways for removal,” as they are described in an internal Department of Homeland Security memo, are supposed to work. The driving force of PACR is a rule that bars any person who entered the country illegally after July 15 from seeking asylum in the United States if they traveled through another country on their way and failed to apply for relief there. The rule is facing a legal challenge, but the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the government to implement it while the case moves forward.

While in CBP custody, asylum seekers have little contact with the outside world in detention facilities ill-equipped for long-term stays.

Last week, lawyers with the Texas Civil Rights Project worked with an attorney representing six women whose cases were processed under PACR. They were told that they could not meet with the women or sign a document to represent them. The women were deported without their attorneys being notified, said attorney Karla Vargas, adding that the six women were told to answer questions during their “credible fear” interviews — which the asylum officers use to evaluate whether a person has a credible fear of returning to a home country — with only a “yes” or “no.”

“The whole thing is a sham process,” Vargas said.

For the hundreds of people processed under the Asylum Cooperation Agreement and sent to Guatemala, applying for asylum in the United States is not an option. They are typically put on planes for Guatemala City within 10 days of arriving at the U.S. border; they do not get credible-fear interviews in the United States because it is up to the migrants if they want to apply for asylum in Guatemala.

The flights have attracted protesters to the airport here in Brownsville, where activists have filmed Hondurans and Salvadorans as they were loaded onto charter planes in recent weeks.

“We are going to continue to see more people sent through these programs, with the goal of reducing the number who can apply for and possibly obtain asylum in the U.S.,” said Maureen Meyer, an immigration expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Hernández reported from Brownsville and Matamoros. Sieff reported from Mexico City.