Relief, gratitude, and determination. As an immigration attorney working with asylum-seekers formerly subject to the Remain in Mexico program, these are emotions that people frequently express as they are processed into the U.S. This is true even though they were forced to wait in dangerous cities in Mexico for sometimes over a year and a half, hoping for the opportunity to present their asylum cases in U.S. immigration court.
I began working at the American Bar Association’s South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation project (ProBAR) in April 2020 to provide legal services to asylum-seekers in the Remain in Mexican program, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP. ProBAR is based in Harlingen, Texas, close to the border with Matamoros. Most asylum-seekers I worked with were stuck in Matamoros or Reynosa, both cities in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The U.S. State Department warns: “Do not Travel” to the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, “due to crime and kidnapping.”
I started working with asylum-seekers in MPP during my first week. Due to the pandemic, ProBAR staff did not go to Matamoros at that time, so I communicated with clients via phone and video calls. People in MPP shared stories of kidnapping, assault, and sexual violence with me. They shared their inability to meet the basic needs of their families. I heard the terror and desperation in their voices and uncontrollable sobs. I watched tears running down cheeks during video calls. People risked their safety each time they stepped onto the street. There were frequent gun battles among criminal organizations. Pregnant women faced, at best, discrimination, poorly trained providers, and unsanitary conditions in hospitals. At worst, they told me they were refused medical care all together.
Parents, children, and others pleaded for assistance because their loved ones faced serious illnesses that could be treated in the U.S. if only they were allowed to enter. In broken words, or trauma-induced flat tones lacking emotion, they expressed increased hopelessness each time that their court hearings were postponed due to the pandemic. Asylum-seekers waiting in the tent encampment at the base of the bridge described deplorable and dangerous conditions. They told me of wind and rain battering their tents during hurricanes. Their teeth chattered with cold when we spoke as they huddled in their tents during freezing temperatures.
I initiated most of those calls with the purpose of preparing their legal cases or providing legal advice. Quite often, the fight for daily survival and pleas for legal assistance to enter the U.S. dominated the conversation. The horrific consequences of MPP have been extensively reported, and a former ABA Commission on Immigration colleague also testified before Congress on these issues.
Successfully removing a person from the MPP program so that they could pursue their immigration case in safety within the U.S. proved, time and again, nearly impossible. They also could not obtain relief through their immigration court cases because their hearings were postponed repeatedly, for almost a year, due to the pandemic. I was powerless to provide the legal assistance they needed. Yet, they were grateful to have an advocate. Although the courts were closed at the time, I still prepared their legal cases, eliciting information when they were psychologically capable of recalling past traumatic events in their home countries. They knew that my colleagues and I constantly searched for new legal mechanisms to remove them from MPP (for example, through federal litigation). They attended live online information sessions that we carefully prepared, and we provided an opportunity for them to pose questions during the session that we answered at the end. Not only did we provide knowledge, but our live, online information sessions showed that we stood with them. We never stopped zealously advocating for them. Although it never felt like enough, it had to be. The alternative – giving up and abandoning them – was never an option.
Then, the first step in a new era for people subject to MPP began on February 16, 2021. The Biden Administration announced that people in Mexico with MPP cases pending before U.S. immigration courts would be processed into the U.S., where they would continue with their immigration cases. The all-encompassing desperation, fear, and hopelessness of many – but not all – began to recede.
On February 25, 2021, the government began paroling MPP asylum-seekers from Matamoros into Brownsville, Texas. I was fortunate to be on the ground during this historic moment, helping to organize the provision of legal services and orientation. I felt honored to be part of this process. ProBAR staff has been on the ground every day since then. ProBAR has also advocated remotely for eligible MPP asylum-seekers subject to administrative error that impeded their ability to be processed or receive legal documents. We coordinate with other legal service providers and non-profit organizations in the region to welcome these asylum-seekers.
In Matamoros, we work with HIAS Mexico legal staff to prepare and review documents for asylum-seekers in MPP who will be processed into the U.S. that same day. During my individual conversations with asylum-seekers, they share their excitement, nervousness, and palpable relief. I express my admiration for their bravery and courage.
After legal documents for all are prepared, and only minutes remain until they walk across the International Bridge, a U.S. attorney provides a brief legal orientation on the next steps in the immigration process. I love this part – the opportunity to connect with and support them during this stage. Some are anxious about what will happen when they cross the bridge and are processed by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). Some are exhausted because they did not sleep the previous night in anticipation of this monumental day. They have just been poked and prodded with a medical screening and a COVID test. They are in shock that this day has actually arrived, because they had doubts until the very last moment.
While my relief is just a shadow of their own, I try to ground the moment in joy by sharing my happiness for them. I help alleviate fears about next steps by providing knowledge. I make bad jokes in Spanish. I welcome them to my country. By the end, there are more smiles and often applause honoring everyone’s survival.
Then, they cross the bridge. I accompany some of the groups, and the smiles widen as they finally make this walk that has been a dream they clung to, which seemed farther away with each day in Mexico.
On the other side of the bridge, they enter Customs and Border Protection processing, and then they are taken to the Brownsville Bus Station to make onward travel arrangements. Most will live with family in the interior of the U.S. ProBAR staff at the bus station welcome these asylum-seekers. We ensure essential legal documents for travel are printed and provided and we conduct orientations explaining legal rights and responsibilities. We also provide flyers explaining legal next steps, such as, checking in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
My work with MPP asylum-seekers as they are processed into the U.S. has undoubtedly been a highlight of my career. Yet, the experience is tarnished. Due to legal quirks in the system and hearings postponed for more than a year, many of the asylum-seekers formerly in MPP will not qualify for or receive work permits for many months, or even more than a year.
Additionally, to satisfy a legal requirement of their humanitarian parole, they are required to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office within 90 days of entry into the U.S. Many formerly MPP asylum-seekers have already contacted ICE to make an appointment. Of these, some cannot even reach an ICE office by phone, as they are instructed to do. Those who are able to reach someone are told that the office has no information about their cases. Sometimes they are directed to an ICE office, but when they arrive, the office is closed. I fear that despite these asylum-seekers’ determination to comply with legal requirements, they are being set up to fail. They need experienced immigration attorneys in the interior of the U.S. to help guide them through the complexities of the legal processes they face.
The experience grows more tarnished each day. In light of the danger and struggle for basic survival in Matamoros and Reynosa outlined at the beginning, many MPP asylum-seekers were denied relief in immigration court before the pandemic because they could not adequately prepare their case. Since MPP began in January 2019, only 650 cases were granted relief out of the 41,844 cases that were decided by the end of February 2021. Many remained at the Southwest Border hoping for an opportunity to present their cases again. As of today, asylum-seekers in MPP with closed cases have no process for entry available to them.
The process of providing humanitarian parole to people with active MPP cases is the first step to achieve justice for people subject to MPP. ProBAR has played a crucial role in this first step in Matamoros and Brownsville. I hope for the opportunity to play a similarly important role in the processing of asylum-seekers who were denied immigration relief in court while in MPP. It is imperative that the lawsuit filed earlier this week by Texas and Missouri to reinstate MPP for future asylum-seekers does not distract the Administration from taking this next step.
About the Author
Lindsay Schenk is a HIAS Border Fellow attorney at ProBAR. Lindsay provides legal assistance to individuals and families of varied nationalities at the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work includes assisting asylum-seekers forced to wait in Mexico under the "MPP" and "Title 42" policies that restrict access to traditional U.S. migrant and asylum processing. Previously, Lindsay represented refugees at St. Andrew’s Refugee Services in Cairo, Egypt, and at the Center for Asylum Protection in Bangkok, Thailand. After law school, Lindsay practiced commercial litigation in Nashville, Tennessee.