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In Tijuana, desperate asylum seekers prepare for the return of ‘Remain in Mexico’

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Max Rivlin-Nadler / KQED
Clothes hang to dry on a fence surrounding a migrant encampment just feet from the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana in this undated photo.

Perched on a wall near her tent, just feet from the border wall separating Tijuana and San Diego, Chantal said she fled Honduras two years ago because she was kicked out of her home by her father and later beaten on the streets because of her gender identity.

The 23-year-old transgender woman, who wouldn’t give her full name because she’s afraid of being tracked down by Honduran gangs, has been living in a crowded migrant encampment in Tijuana for a month. And she’s intent on seeking asylum in the United States. She said she has family in the U.S., but that’s not why she’s trying to get there.

“They don’t approve of me either, because they’re very Christian,” she said, explaining that her gender identity isn’t in line with their beliefs.

In Mexico, Chantal said she was briefly abducted by a gang and has been beaten up on the streets of Tijuana.

“It’s very dangerous to be waiting in Mexico, just as dangerous as it was living in Honduras,” she said.

During that time, the group Human Rights First counted more than 1,500 reports of rape, murder, and other violence against asylum seekers in the program.

“People are living in conditions that are best described as prolonged episodes of The Hunger Games, while trying to fight their case,” said Nicole Ramos, a lawyer with Al Otro Lado, one of the few groups that provides legal services to migrants in Tijuana.

Waiting in Mexican border cities is not only dangerous, she said, but makes it almost impossible to find legal representation in the United States. Only 7% of MPP asylum-seekers had a lawyer. As a result, less than 1% of migrants actually won their asylum cases while enrolled in “Remain in Mexico.” By contrast, closer to a third of asylum seekers overall won their cases during the same period.

President Joe Biden campaigned on ending the MPP program and in June his Secretary of Homeland Security issued a memo rescinding the program.

Several states, including Texas, challenged the rescission in federal court. And in August, a Trump-appointed federal judge sided with the states and ordered the Biden administration to restart the program as soon as possible. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene, allowing the Texas ruling to go into effect.

While the Biden administration continues trying to terminate the program in a way that will satisfy the courts, Homeland Security officials are also taking steps to re-implement “Remain in Mexico,” as ordered.

Last month, in an attempt to make the program as humane as possible, they convened a meeting with Al Otro Lado and other immigrant legal aid groups and asked them to provide assistance to asylum seekers in MPP. The organizations refused and walked out of the meeting.

“We are not going to touch that program,” Ramos said. “We feel like our resources are better used conducting human rights monitoring and interviews … and looking at ways to destroy the program.”

Federal officials, meanwhile, have been negotiating with the Mexican government to resume receiving migrants under MPP in the next few weeks.

Lawyers in San Diego say they’ve been told by federal officials that immigration judges have been designated and courtrooms have already been set aside.

Kate Clark, the lead immigration attorney with Jewish Family Service of San Diego, said the resumption of a program they oppose leaves legal service providers in a difficult spot.

“You can’t make an inhumane program humane,” she said. “That’s the hard line for us.”

But there may be ways her organization will get involved to help asylum seekers who end up in the program. Once migrants are placed in Remain in Mexico, she said, there are a few things lawyers can try to get them out of the program and into the U.S., in spite of Title 42, to continue their asylum cases from a safer location.

“Whether in the future we’re involved with submitting parole requests … that’s something for us to consider,” Clark said.

"People are living in conditions that are best described as prolonged episodes of The Hunger Games, while trying to fight their case."
— Nicole Ramos, attorney

At the Casa Del Migrante shelter that sits on a hill beside the Tijuana River, lawyer Kathy Kruger said she will provide people with legal assistance if they are placed in Remain in Mexico. She works with migrants each day and she knows their options are limited, and, she said, over the past two years, they’ve been given a lot of false hope about the asylum system along the border.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration began allowing people who had been in the original Remain in Mexico program to enter the U.S. and continue pursuing asylum from there. That approach ended with the Texas judge’s ruling this summer.

Now, with Title 42, the public health policy, still blocking would-be asylum seekers from getting across the border, Kruger said she understands that some migrants may see a renewed Remain in Mexico program as their only hope to eventually win protection in the U.S.

“If they still want to do it, you just have to try to facilitate them for a smooth way of doing it,” Kruger said. “Everything that they went through made them take that decision.”

At the Tijuana migrant encampment, Chantal and others feel time is running out. There are plans to close the camp in the coming weeks and a fence has been built around it, meaning that no new migrants can enter the encampment, which has existed since February.

Chantal said she needs to take a step, any step, to begin her asylum claim.

“If there’s asylum in the United States, then I have to ask for it,” she said.

She pulls out her phone to show me what she looks like when she feels most comfortable. In the photo, she’s wearing make-up and a long dress. In Mexico, though, she’s sticking to a sweatshirt and jeans, and just a little eye shadow, trying to keep a low profile and avoid being attacked.

“I want to dress like a woman, but I can’t here,” she said.

She knows that entering the Remain in Mexico program won’t get her out of Tijuana immediately, but it may be the only concrete step she has right now.

Copyright 2021 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.