NOGALES, Mexico (CN) — The Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” policy for asylum-seekers has sparked a human-rights crisis that already has killed several people, and it’s getting worse, according to volunteers working in Mexican border towns and a recent report from a federal watchdog.
The policy, formally the Migrant Protection Protocols, and the practice of “metering,” or processing just a handful of asylum applications daily at each border crossing, have led to a buildup of immigrants in Mexico who previously would have been allowed to wait in the United States.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan federal watchdog, condemned the combination of practices in an October report, “Trauma at the Border: The Human Cost of Inhumane Immigration Policies.”
“Several asylum seekers who were turned away from U.S. ports of entry have been killed, women have been raped, and children have been kidnapped, calling into question the relative safety of Central Americans in Mexico,” the commission reported on Oct. 24.
Days later, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, who later resigned, defended the policy and expanded it to the port of entry at Eagle Pass, Texas.
“We are confident in the program’s integrity and ability to adjudicate asylum claims quickly and with all due process,” McAleenan said Oct. 28. “We have already seen individuals granted asylum, and many more fraudulent or nonmeritorious cases closed. MPP has been, and remains, an essential part of these efforts.”
The policy has resulted in more than 55,000 people being returned to Mexico and an 80% drop in the number of immigrant families encountered at the border, and is shortening the time they wait for court dates, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“MPP returnees with meritorious claims can be granted relief or protection within months, rather than remaining in limbo for years while awaiting immigration court proceedings in the United States,” Homeland Security claims.
In Brownsville and Laredo, Texas, Homeland Security erected large tents to hear cases, 13,000 of which had been heard by Oct. 21. But most people are turned back at the border to wait, often for three or four months, usually on the streets of dangerous border towns.
“This was the case for Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 1-year-old daughter, Valeria, who tried to enter the United States at the official port of entry at Matamoros-Brownsville,” the Commission on Civil Rights reported. “They were told it was closed, and drowned while crossing the Río Grande.”
Conditions in Matamoros, where about 13,000 people are stranded, remain squalid and overcrowded, said attorney Charlene D’Cruz of Lawyers for Good Government, a nonprofit operating the only full-time legal-aid office in the city.
One recent night D’Cruz stood huddled on the Rio Grande bridge with a 2-year-old Central American girl whose family is awaiting an asylum hearing. The girl, who doctors feared had sepsis, was feverish and wrapped in a blanket in a 42-degree rain.
After more than three hours of waiting, a Border Patrol doctor agreed the girl was in danger, and she was sent to a U.S. hospital, D’Cruz said.
“That girl could have died,” she said.
Lawyers for Good Government provides immigrants with legal advice, though they do not represent them in court. Many are fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico and are willing to face extreme risks.
“People are living with nothing,” D’Cruz said. “They’re living in tents. Most of them expect that they will be kidnapped (by cartels). The situation is dire. They will grasp onto anything that represents hope.”
Since June last year, D’Cruz has spent about 10 days a month working near a tent city that has grown to about 2,500 people, although city officials claim it is just 800, D’Cruz said.
In recent weeks, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf announced another expansion of the ironically named Migrant Protection Protocols to Arizona’s Tucson Sector. Eventually, immigrants caught in Arizona will be bused to Brownsville and released in Matamoros. So far it hasn’t happened, according to volunteers in Mexico and in a Tucson shelter.
In Nogales, Mexico, conditions are less dire than in Matamoros, though many of the same risks exist, said Kathi Noaker, a volunteer with Voices from the Border, a nonprofit that provides mostly medical aid to immigrants.
The group based in Patagonia, Ariz., works with Francisco “Pancho” Olachea Martín, a nurse in Mexico, to care for the scratches and sometimes more serious ailments.
“I was a migrant myself,” Martin said this week while driving his dented white van around Nogales, handing out over-the-counter medication and advice to mothers with small children. “I wanted to help.”
Martín went to nursing school because of the need he saw. For seven years now he has devoted his life to easing the journeys of immigrants, whether they are awaiting asylum interviews or have been deported.
On Tuesday, he stopped by a bus station where about 50 deportees gather daily for showers and to do laundry. Some will head farther south, to their homes, and some will try again to get into the United States. At the bus station, Martin gave ointment to a woman for her arm and infant pain-relief drops to a young mother, then jumped in his “ambulance” to head to another stop.
“I just try to do the best possible,” he said while winding through the hilly, narrow side streets of the Mexican city of 200,000. “It’s all I can do.”
In Tucson, ICE is still dropping off dozens of asylum-seekers daily, said Diego Lopez, the director of the Casa Alitas Program, an arm of the nonprofit Catholic Social Services.
Casa Alitas sheltered about 930 people last month in a converted juvenile detention facility, but they expect that number to drop dramatically when the busing to Matamoros starts, Lopez said.
The shelter can house about 150 people in 60 rooms at maximum capacity. One wing is devoted to intake and medical care; one is a children’s play area; and one a general family living area.
A former outdoor recreation area now houses a series of raised garden beds, where vegetables, herbs and flowers grow; another contains a large tent where families, most of whom arrive with only the clothes on their backs, get two changes of clothes.
Lopez isn’t sure what will happen to the shelter when ICE starts busing people to Texas and Matamoros, but for now the flow of people through Casa Alitas continues.
“Today, 14 families are leaving,” Lopez said Thursday.
In its October report, the Commission on Civil Rights called on the U.S. government to strengthen oversight of immigration facilities, expand the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, allow the commission to conduct unannounced visits to immigration detention centers, and ensure that funds are available to train legal staff to handle the roughly 1 million backlogged immigration cases.
The Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to requests for comment for this story.