The El Paso community — with support from around the world — became a shining example of generosity and hospitality. Catholic nuns and evangelical missionaries volunteered alongside radical atheists; former Border Patrol agents served meals cooked by the local LGBT center; students and retirees bonded over bumbling Spanish and children’s laughter. We came together to welcome those in search of refuge and wished them well as they continued on the next step of their journeys.
Today, most of this has come to an end.
Vulnerable families have not stopped arriving on our doorstep and asking for help. Rather, this shift is the result of the Trump administration’s farcically named “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP). Under this program, asylum seekers are processed by border agents and then returned to Mexico to await their asylum court hearings.
Between March and September, over 14,500 asylum seekers have been denied the warm welcome of the El Paso community in exchange for being dumped on the dangerous streets of Ciudad Juárez, a city notorious for its high rates of homicide. This includes infants, children, pregnant women, people living with disabilities and chronic medical conditions, and members of the LGBT community. Hope has become despair.
This is not to say that Ciudad Juárez — in conjunction with neighbors on this side of the border — has not also stepped up to provide welcome and hospitality to asylum seekers subjected to MPP. Local organizations, faith-based communities and legal service providers are working tirelessly to try to address the horrors of this manufactured crisis.
Nevertheless, the demands of launching a humanitarian response in Mexico are fundamentally different than doing so within the United States. Over the last 10 years of working with asylum seekers in El Paso, I never once feared for my safety. Now, I am constantly terrified.
The international bridges are swarming with cartel scouts known as halcones — “hawks.” Sometimes disguised as window-washers, they are tasked with keeping tabs on what’s happening on the bridges. This includes monitoring asylum seekers returning for court hearings. I have been approached by these men and grilled about my activities, threatened to move along or I am “going to have problems.” One of my attorney colleagues was recently waiting for her MPP client at the base of the international bridge when she witnessed a man crash a few feet away as he erratically tried to maneuver his vehicle after being shot several times in broad daylight.
But my fear of being harmed in Ciudad Juárez pales in comparison to the risks faced by my clients. Altogether, the MPP program has served as a stimulus plan for the cartels, which routinely kidnap returned asylum seekers mere minutes after they are returned to Mexico. The kidnappers then demand the phone numbers of victims’ family members in the United States so they can extort thousands of dollars in ransom.
Ciudad Juárez has 1,500 beds in its shelters, most of which are taken. The conditions in these shelters are often harrowing: crumbling walls, frequent flooding, unreliable plumbing, spotty electricity. Food is scarce. The shelters have become additional targets for organized crime. Everyone whispers about the halcones who surveil the shelters at all hours, sometimes upping their threats by firing shots into the air.
Even those asylum seekers who are too scared to leave the shelters are not safe. For example, one shelter was recently attacked by masked men bearing heavy assault rifles. The men forced themselves inside and stole everything of value, physically attacking anyone who showed even the least amount of resistance. Their victims included a 16-year-old boy whose face was smashed by a rifle in front of his terrified little sisters and elderly grandparents. His nose was still bloody and swollen several days later when I arrived at the shelter to give the family a legal consultation, perched on a bunk bed in their crowded room. None of the children would make eye contact. The grandmother could not stop shaking.
Given the security situation in border cities such as Ciudad Juárez, it is unsurprising that government data shows that less than 2 percent of all MPP respondents are represented by counsel in their asylum court proceedings. Attorneys are rightly scared to go into Mexico and wary about trying to prepare an entire complex asylum case using only spotty cellphone service.
Our immigration courts are so overwhelmed by the bloated MPP dockets that hearings routinely start several hours late or are canceled altogether, wasting everyone’s time. Attorneys confess in private that they are not going to take any more MPP cases because they cannot cope psychologically with receiving the panicked calls of their clients facing danger in Mexico.
MPP is a disgrace that diminishes our standing on the world stage. A program that presumes that all asylum seekers who make the treacherous journey to our border are simply trying to scam our immigration system is callous and cynical.
Asylum seekers can and should be released while they await their court hearings in the United States. The data is clear: Immigrants and families appear in court, though one rationale for the MPP program is to prevent people from skipping court appearances and hiding as undocumented immigrants. Communities such as El Paso stand ready to provide them with the support and legal services necessary for them to obtain a fair day in court.
This cruel experiment must end immediately. Until then, the U.S. government has the blood of asylum seekers on its hands.