A Year Of Trump's 'Remain-In-Mexico' Policy Leaves Migrants Desperate, Vulnerable
On Jan. 29, 2019, a 55-year-old Honduran man walked down the ramp from the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana. He was the first asylum-seeker returned to Mexico under the controversial "Migrant Protection Protocols," more commonly called "Remain in Mexico."
Since that day, more than 57,000 asylum-seekers have followed in his footsteps across the southwest border, returned to Mexico to wait for their day in immigration court in the US.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created the program to prevent asylum seekers from being released in the U.S. before their asylum hearings; a program they call catch and release.
DHS and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) declined repeated requests for an interview with KPBS for this story. DHS told KPBS in a statement that the "Remain In Mexico" program is currently under internal review.
But the administration of this program by DHS has placed migrants directly into danger. Asylum-seekers have faced violence and persecution while waiting in Tijuana, and have been virtually unable to access legal assistance.
On top of that, Mexican authorities say they have their hands tied — they are simply complying with the wishes of the Trump administration.
"We were pressured by the United States government, by the president of the United States to accept [asylum-seekers]," said Jesús Alejandro Ruíz Uribe, Baja's Federal Delegate. Uribe as the liaison between the Baja state government and Mexico's president.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico's president, allowed Remain-in-Mexico to expand and began a crackdown on immigration along Mexico's southern border after the Trump administration threatened the country with crippling tariffs.
Still, Uribe says that the goal for Mexican authorities has been to treat the migrants returned to Mexico with respect.
"This is a government that is led by a humanist," Uribe told KPBS in Spanish. "We must treat the migrants with human dignity and spend money on that humanitarian mission."
The Mexican government doesn't keep track of what happens to the migrants returned to Mexico. Many, faced with a months-long wait, enter the United States by jumping a fence or walking through the desert. Some go back to their home country. Others fall victim to violence in border cities.
A report from the organization Human Rights First found that more than 816 people in the program have been murdered, tortured, or attacked while waiting in Mexico for their court hearing.
In late November, a 35-year old Salvadoran man was killed in Tijuana after being sent back to Mexico with his wife and kids. According to the coroner’s report obtained by KPBS, the man was dismembered.
"It's as if the border has descended into darkness and we're all just doing the best we can to ensure we survive," said Nicole Ramos, a lawyer with the organization Al Otro Lado, which has provided legal and humanitarian support to asylum-seekers in Tijuana. "At our office in Tijuana, we've literally had victims of human trafficking come to our office, after escaping human traffickers. And we ourselves have been faced with personal danger as we're forced to find places for people to hide."
More than 27,500 have been returned to the Tijuana-Mexicali region from along the border. To get to court, they have to line up early in the morning in Tijuana, to be bussed to downtown San Diego for their hearings.
Less than 3% of those in court in San Diego have been able to find a lawyer, as legal service providers are stretched thin and private lawyers are fearful of traveling to see their clients in Mexico.
"There is no access to counsel," Ramos told KPBS. "The idea that an asylum-seeker in MPP could get or afford an attorney is simply laughable."
Uribe says the future of the "Remain-in-Mexico" program hinges on November's U.S. presidential election.
"It's going to be a fundamental issue that people will be voting on in the next election," he said. "If you want to continue the politics of Trump, and his handling of migrants."
Until then, the Mexican government will continue to accept migrants to a city already strapped for resources.