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Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy marks one year, leaving tens of thousands of migrants stranded in Mexican border towns

A year ago, the Trump administration boldly enacted a callous and unlawful policy that put migrants’ lives in unspeakable danger, drawing the ire of immigration advocates and much of the general public.

The administration officially implemented the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy – aimed at denying legal rights to migrants seeking asylum – on Jan. 25, 2019.

Under this policy, asylum-seekers are forced to wait for their U.S. immigration hearings in dangerous, crime-ridden Mexican border towns.           

“One year ago, when the policy was first implemented, we warned it would cause chaos and further erode our nation’s core values,” said Melissa Crow, senior supervising attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “It has done just that. This policy has trapped tens of thousands of vulnerable migrants across the border – making it nearly impossible for them to exercise their legal rights. What’s more, it has hidden this U.S. government-created humanitarian crisis from the sight of the American public.”                                

The first migrant was returned to Mexico under the policy on Jan. 29, 2019. Since then, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have illegally sent over 57,000 migrants – including babies, toddlers and children – to wait on the streets of overcrowded cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, where they’re at risk of crimes such as kidnapping, murder, theft and rape.                  

Vulnerable and stuck in border towns, migrants rarely find appropriate shelter. Some sleep in flimsy tents that do little to protect them from the elements. Others sleep on or under bridges, or crowd together on grimy streets without blankets or pillows.

Migrant parents clutch their children tightly, so no one can abduct them. They’re hungry, sad and scared for their lives. What’s more, after traversing Central America, migrants often find themselves penniless when arriving at the southern border and are forced to live off meager handouts from strangers.        

Two weeks after the policy was enacted, the SPLC, along with co-counsel from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, filed a federal lawsuit – Innovation Law Lab, et al. v. Wolf, et al to end the “Remain in Mexico” policy, describing how the policy subjects asylum-seekers to perilous conditions that make it nearly impossible for them to prepare their cases.

The lawsuit further alleges that the Trump administration violated its obligations under the Immigration and Nationality Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, as well as its duty under customary international law not to return people to countries where they risk persecution or torture.     

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 11 individual asylum-seekers who were forcibly returned to Mexico and organizational plaintiffs Innovation Law Lab, Al Otro Lado, the Central American Resource Center of North California, Centro Legal de la Raza, the University of San Francisco School of Law Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, and the Tahirih Justice Center.     

Shattered dreams

“Remain in Mexico” is just one in a series of Trump administration policies created to eviscerate the legal rights of asylum-seekers and deter others from even beginning the journey to the United States.             

However, many migrants aren’t discouraged. They make the hopeful journey to the U.S because life at home has become impossible. Once they arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, many asylum-seekers express to CBP officials that they don’t want to be a burden on the U.S.; they only want to live and work peacefully. They want a chance at freedom.        

“It’s been my dream to go to the United States,” one migrant from Ciudad Juarez said in August 2019. “I can’t go back to my country. They’ll kill me. This is my dream.”     

But once they are held captive in border towns, migrants see their dreams of freedom quickly shatter.

In April 2019, a federal district court judge in California issued a preliminary injunction blocking the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Just one month later, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the administration’s request to allow the policy to remain in effect temporarily while the government appeals the preliminary injunction. In October 2019, the Ninth Circuit heard arguments on the merits of the preliminary injunction. That ruling is still pending.

Meanwhile, as tens of thousands of migrants wait in Mexico – seemingly in limbo – their lives are on the line. They can’t go back to their countries, and they can’t enter the U.S.

“We will continue to fight this policy through the court system, but more needs to be done by our elected officials – and now,” Crow said. “Congress must immediately end any funding that supports the implementation of the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy and launch a full investigation of this program that has already devastated so many lives.”   

Photo by Todd Bigelow