SAN DIEGO (CN) – Standing in front of a black poster reading “15 miles south of here refugees are dying at our border,” a couple dozen attorneys and advocates Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of a Trump administration’s program that forces asylum seekers to Mexico to wait adjunction of their immigration cases.
In the year since Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, took effect Jan. 29, 2019, more than 60,000 asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico after attempting to seek asylum in the U.S.
They’ve waited for their court dates in shelters and camps in border cities where they’re vulnerable to crime. Human Rights First has documented over 800 violent crimes against asylum seekers waiting in Mexico under MPP including murder, rape, torture, kidnapping and assault.
More than 27,500 of those asylum seekers were returned to the Tijuana-Mexicali region along San Diego County’s border with Mexico.
Gabriela and her son were two of them.
The pair, originally from Guatemala, currently resides at Jewish Family Service of San Diego’s Migrant Family Shelter. They arrived at the shelter Jan. 24 after spending months in Mexico awaiting adjudication of their asylum case.
But Emily Tortorella, immigration specialist with Jewish Family Service, said in an interview the family’s case was tossed by an immigration judge because the charging document did not provide the correct information.
The case is on appeal and the family was released under certain conditions, including Gabriela’s agreement to wear an ankle monitor and check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement once they reach their destination city.
Tortorella said immigration attorneys are seeing more cases thrown out and appealed by the federal government due to incorrect information.
It’s symptomatic of a policy immigration advocates say has left judges, attorneys and immigrants confused and which federal officials have reportedly not been enforcing consistently or accurately.
Robyn Barnard, a staff attorney with Human Rights First, said government officials violate their own policy by returning people to Mexico under MPP who should be exempt, notably pregnant women and those with serious health conditions.
Barnard said her client who has epilepsy was sent back to Mexico and this week she met a pregnant woman who was sent back to Mexicali.
She also pointed out her client “Alec,” one of the first people returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols policy, was granted asylum last year yet immigration officials continued to detain him and threatened to return him to Mexico while they mulled whether to appeal the immigration judge’s ruling.
Others have been reportedly turned away at ports of entry when returning for court hearings.
Nicole Ramos, refugee program director for legal service provider Al Otro Lado, pointed out if MPP was created to ensure asylum seekers show up to court hearings, turning them away is not accomplishing that stated goal.
“If the Migrant Protection Protocols was designed to assure migrants arrived to their court proceedings, we would not have U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers turning away asylum seekers at the port of entry who have arrived with notices to appear in immigration court, causing them to not appear, obtain orders of removal due to their absence and have their cases closed,” Ramos said.
For those reasons, the attorneys and advocates called Wednesday for the end of Migrant Protection Protocols.
The policy is being challenged in federal court, with the American Civil Liberties Union winning a nationwide preliminary injunction earlier this month that guarantees counsel representation during the non-refoulement interviews granted to asylum seekers who express a fear of being returned to Mexico under MPP.
ACLU Attorney Monika Langarica, who argued before U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw last year, said in an interview prior to the injunction being issued that asylum seekers were denied access to attorneys while trying to make their case not to be returned to Mexico, which she called “an erosion of due process.”
“These are highly, highly consequential interviews that for many people will determine if they live or die but the way in which they’re being carried out is truncated,” Langarica said.
The Guatemalan family named as class representatives in the ACLU’s class action was removed from MPP and allowed to live with family in the U.S. after the father prevailed in his non-refoulement interview, where he was assisted by his attorney.
Langarica said she knows of several people who have had access to their attorneys since the injunction was issued two weeks ago but does not know of any additional cases where people prevailed during their interviews and had been allowed into the U.S other than her clients.
“The outcome is nothing more and nothing less than a more just process for these people,” Langarica said.