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November 01, 2022

Winding Down the Migrant Protection Protocols, Again

By: Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez
Photo of Pedro outside the Brownsville Bus Station

Photo of Pedro outside the Brownsville Bus Station

Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez

Last month, the first thing you would see upon walking into the Brownsville bus station were several large inflatable monsters, towering over travelers and passersby alike. No doubt these Halloween decorations were a strange sight for arriving asylum seekers, many having faced real monsters on their dangerous journeys north. The Brownsville bus station has become a symbol of hope for migrants and advocates alike, because being released to the bus station is the refugees’ first step towards freedom. It is often where they have their first meal outside of government custody, the first time they can control their own schedule, and the last step before reuniting with family and friends.

A few years ago, in 2019, under the first version of the Migrant Protection Protocols (“MPP”), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, many families were living in the “tent cities” in Matamoros or Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, as they waited for their court dates, which were held remotely from inside a tent on the U.S. side of the border. Other families had been forced to move elsewhere in Mexico and rent a home in order to avoid the extreme dangers of the tent city, where health and sanitation issues abounded and the cartels roamed the area, often targeting migrants. Between January 2019 and January 2021, there were well over 1,000 public reports of murder, kidnapping, torture, rape or other physical violence in Mexico’s tent cities.

The First MPP Winddown

In early 2021, the Biden administration declared the end of MPP, saving many lives. Children and families were to be allowed to await their immigration court dates in the United States, with friends or family members acting as sponsors, hosting them and making sure they attended their court dates. Those previously under the MPP policy would now be able to look for a lawyer and gather the evidence they might need, rather than pursuing their case from a tent encampment in Mexico at constant risk of terrible violence. This is also when ABA ProBAR began providing legal orientations at the Brownsville bus station, meeting with MPP respondents after they were processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

In our legal orientations at the bus station, we explained the difference between checking in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and attending upcoming hearings in Immigration Court, both of which were of paramount importance in order to continue with the immigration process. We also provided contact information for legal services organizations that might be able to assist asylum seekers wherever they went, whether that was in New York, Wyoming, or elsewhere. (Unsurprisingly, some areas have more legal aid organizations than others, impacting asylum-seekers’ likelihood of finding a pro bono lawyer who could assist them with their case.) When the first buses of MPP disenrollees arrived at the Brownsville bus station in the spring of 2021, it was inspiring to see the celebrations and the optimism the migrants demonstrated as they emerged from those buses.

The Return of MPP and the Second MPP Winddown

But these celebratory encounters were short-lived—MPP was reinstated shortly thereafter in response to lawsuits from the states of Texas and Missouri, resulting in “MPP 2.0,” a new version of the policy. The tent cities on the Mexican side of the border were replaced by shelters farther inland, in Monterrey, Mexico, and MPP respondents were forced to travel for several hours to attend hearings in the tent courts on the American side for their court dates. For months, ABA ProBAR staff members have been preparing for the end of MPP 2.0, and until earlier this week, we were still meeting with respondents at the Brownsville tent courts most days of the week. The number of MPP respondents appearing at these hearings has been steadily lower throughout October, as new people are no longer being “enrolled” in MPP, but those who had their final asylum merits hearing scheduled in October have still been forced to move forward with it, even though MPP is reportedly ending.

Despite the difficulty of obtaining evidence that corroborates their case while in Mexico, and despite the government’s decision not to force asylum applicants to prepare for their cases in this way going forward, many asylum seekers have still been forced to present their asylum claims without a lawyer and have their fate decided under the cruel constraints of the MPP program. Meeting with these last MPP respondents in the minutes before their court date has been especially disheartening because we know that—if the judge denies their request to postpone the hearing—they may receive a life-altering deportation order that day because of the random timing of their final court date.

If they lose their asylum case and decide to appeal, they are placed in immigration detention, such as at the Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC) or the El Valle Detention Facility, where ABA ProBAR also provides legal services. Meanwhile, some of those who are awaiting their court date, or the outcome of their appeal, were still staying in the overnight shelters in Monterrey. One MPP respondent noted the increased danger to migrants from the shelters emptying out, as they can no longer rely on safety in numbers. This man was later apprehended by police on the street and sent to Southern Mexico (and nearly deported by Mexican immigration authorities), over 1,000 miles from the border, despite having valid documentation and an active appeal pending in the United States.

For those who did not have their final asylum hearing scheduled and were appearing in the tent courts for their initial hearing last month, we have continued to provide Know-Your-Rights trainings and an explanation of the process for them to move their court hearings to their final destination, if they are to be released. For those asked by the guards for the physical address where they are going to in the United States, one could sense their cautious optimism. In contrast to the groups that came before them, now, during our Know-Your-Rights presentations, at times one might even hear the free laughter of relief that follows terrible stress or see the tired but earnest smiles between MPP respondents. There was hope they would soon be able to meet their loved ones or at least reside in a safer environment.

After these legal orientations and their initial court hearings, CBP arranges for the asylum-seekers to be taken to the Brownsville bus station, where they wait for their bus or other transportation. Some will travel to a nearby airport, where one can identify them by the red or blue tote bags they carry with snacks and water, provided by local non-profits.

The soft-sided tent court facility is already beginning to be used by CBP as an alternate processing facility for other migrants at the Port of Entry, including children and families from Haiti and Ukraine, or other exemptions from Title 42, the health law that allows migrants to be routinely expelled without a hearing due to alleged concerns over COVID. But in the meantime, people with their final MPP asylum hearings scheduled in October have still been forced to proceed in front of the judge.

The situation on the ground continues to change daily. For example, as of last month, the Title 42 policy now also applies to Venezuelans, who until recently were part of the MPP policy but will now be expelled without a court hearing if they enter without inspection. But we are on the verge of what will hopefully be the real end of MPP, unless it is reinstated due to ongoing litigation.

Meanwhile, the Brownsville bus station is still for some the first place where they can contact their family members to let them know they have been released. With their phone charger plugged into the wall, MPP respondents are on the phone recounting some of the challenges they have experienced and speaking with family and friends to arrange travel logistics in a foreign land. They know they are among the fortunate ones who have made it to their destination, and they are glad to be able to celebrate soon in the safety of a welcoming home. The Halloween decorations will be replaced by those marking other fall and winter holidays, but no doubt MPP respondents will not forget them.