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Border & Immigration

Experts: Biden administration failed to make Remain in Mexico program more humane

Running for his life, the 24-year-old migrant had fled Columbia in March and made it to the U.S.-Mexican border in hopes of being granted asylum. But he was instead forced to stay in Mexico, where he feels anything but safe.

“We’re discriminated against because of our accent,” said Daniel, who only revealed his first name in an interview with KPBS. “Some of my friends have been kidnapped and their families extorted.”

Daniel is still living in a Tijuana shelter because of a Trump-era program called Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. He said he rarely leaves the shelter because he fears for his safety.


Also known as Remain in Mexico, the program was among the Trump administration’s most controversial immigration policies because of the dangerous realities it forced migrants to live under. Also, the majority of the more than 3,000 people that ended up in the program have struggled to find lawyers willing to represent them in immigration court.

During his 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden promised to do away with the program and tried to during his first year in office. But he was thwarted by a federal judge in Texas who ruled that MPP must continue. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

With it continuing, the Biden administration has vowed to reform the program and make it more humane. But immigration advocates and experts say that hasn’t happened.

“None of the fundamental underlying issues created by MPP 1.0 have been solved by the new implementation,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melinck, senior policy counsel for the American Immigration Council. “Northern Mexico is still a dangerous place for many asylum seekers, there are still very few U.S. lawyers who can assist migrants with their cases and people still have a lot of insecurity while they wait in Mexico for their hearings.”

Experts believe even more people will be enrolled into MPP after the Biden administration terminates Title 42 — another controversial Trump-era program that allows border officials to turn away migrants without giving them a chance to begin their asylum cases.


This is an improvement for many because though they will be sent back to Mexico, they’ll at least be able to start their asylum cases. But their chances will remain exceedingly slim.

“The irony is that MPP will actually be better for them,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “Rather than getting zero chance at applying for asylum, they will be able to apply for asylum. They’ll just have an incredibly high uphill battle to actually win their case.”

When Mexico agreed to accept MPP enrollees, they limited it to only migrants from the Western Hemisphere with the only exceptions being Mexican nationals and unaccompanied children.

If and when Title 42 is lifted, Mexicans, unaccompanied children and migrants from Asia, Africa and Europe will be able to enter the country and stay in the U.S. while their asylum cases are pending.

People from countries in the Caribbean, South and Central America will likely be enrolled in MPP.

However, this has become a big if. This week a federal judge in Louisiana indicated he will block the Biden administration’s plans to end Title 42 on May 23.

Life in Tijuana

There are a little over 900 MPP enrollees living in Tijuana, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.

Other migrants at the Tijuana shelter where Daniel is living told KPBS that they are also afraid to live in Mexico.

“This program is all about wearing people out,” said a 50-year-old Colombian man who asked not to be identified. “It’s like they want us to give up. That seems to be the ideology of this program.”

The man said he has been robbed in Mexico by local police officers. He said he told this to a judge in immigration court but they still sent him back to Tijuana.

Julia Neusner, an attorney with Human Rights First, said she heard similar stories during a recent visit to Tijuana.

She was particularly struck by the psychological toll of MPP.

“People are really just afraid to leave and being stuck in this little shelter all the time is really weighing on folks’ mental health,” Neusner said. “One person I spoke with said he had insomnia, he had bags under his eyes. He said 'I have never experienced this before. I have never had depression before in my life and now, I can’t sleep.' So, I think the impact on folks’ mental health in this program is a really serious issue too.”

Lack of help

Another big issue for migrants in the shelter KPBS spoke to is none of them have been able to find lawyers to represent them in immigration court.

People in immigration court do not get a court-appointed counsel. So they must rely on lawyers willing to do it for free, or come up with thousands of dollars to pay for representation by a private immigration attorney.

Migrants enrolled in MPP receive a piece of paper with a phone number to call for free legal representation. But no one ever answers that number, say those who KPBS interviewed.

“I’ve called 60 times a day for two weeks,” the 50-year-old Colombian man said.

It is difficult to win asylum cases even when you have a lawyer, Neusner said.

But most people in immigration court do not. They must represent themselves in a complex legal case and in a language they do not understand.

“Most of the people in MPP don’t speak English,” “Neusner said. “All of the court paperwork needs to be in English, the forms are all in English, all of the evidence needs to be translated into English. Language is a huge barrier.”

There are only a handful of immigration lawyers in San Diego willing and able to help MPP enrollees on a pro-bono basis. And if more migrants are placed in the program after Title 42 is eliminated, it will be even less likely for them to find legal representation.

“Being in that program is really difficult,” Neusner said. “It’s really emotionally and physically draining for people because of the isolation, because of being stranded in a country that is not their own.”

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