The Supreme Court has given the Biden administration the green light to halt a Trump-era policy intended to deter migration at the southern border.
Known as Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico,” the policy forced asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while they awaited their immigration proceedings for up to 180 days, with low access to legal aid. The Biden administration first attempted to end MPP in February 2021, but Texas and Missouri sued the federal government, and a federal judge ordered the program reinstated in August. The administration attempted to end the program once more in October 2021, but lost their appeal in December 2021 in the notoriously conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June ruled in favor of the Biden administration.
According to Julia Neusner, an associate attorney for Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection Program, migrants were still being processed into MPP even after the Supreme Court ruling. Over a month after the Supreme Court ruling, on Aug. 8, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk finally vacated the ruling he issued last year ordering Biden to reinstate the program, easing the way for the Supreme Court ruling to take effect. A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement issued Aug. 8 detailed that migrants already enrolled in MPP will be processed into the U.S., where they will be allowed to pursue their asylum cases. According to research from Syracuse University, 5,000 asylum-seekers were added to MPP during Biden’s administration. During Trump’s administration, 71,000 migrants were enrolled in the program. In the meantime, Neusner told Prism that shelter facilities in Mexico are still operating until all people enrolled in the program can be processed.
“We’re really happy to hear that the program is just finally over,” Neusner said. “I just would prefer it if the U.S. government would process people more quickly, because many people remain in danger in Mexico.”
MPP forced asylum-seekers and migrants to stay in unsafe conditions across the southwest border for months and, in some cases, years. When the policy was expanded in December 2021 to encompass all asylum-seekers from the Western Hemisphere—including Haitians fleeing gang violence, political instability, and other humanitarian crises—–advocacy groups like Human Rights First expressed their concern that extending MPP would be deadly for already vulnerable migrants.
According to a joint report from 12 human rights organizations, between February 2019 and February 2021, there were at least 1,544 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum-seekers and migrants forced to return to Mexico under MPP. These attacks included 341 cases of children who were kidnapped.
While MPP is officially over, Neusner said it only accounted for about 1% of people who cross the border, whereas Title 42, a 76-year-old public health law that allows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to bar certain individuals from entering the U.S. to prevent the spread of communicable diseases remains in place and affects 61% of people crossing the border.
“Even now that Remain in Mexico has ended, Title 42 prohibits access to asylum at ports of entry,” Neusner said. “Even if the people may be allowed to seek asylum, they still can’t access asylum at a port of entry. So they’ll be turned away. The only way that they can access asylum is to cross between ports, through the desert and at the mercy of organized crime. The policy continues to force everybody into danger in that regard.”
The CDC invoked Title 42 in March 2020 at the behest of white nationalist and former White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller. According to epidemiologists, public health experts, and advocacy groups like Physicians for Human Rights, Title 42 “has been used as a political tool without any scientific underpinnings.” (There is also evidence that Title 42 actually aids in the transmission of COVID-19.)
In April, the CDC did propose rescinding Title 42. However, the following month a district court prohibited the repeal of the policy after more than 20 states filed a politically motivated case using the xenophobic argument that ending Title 42 would create a financial burden because of the increase of asylum-seekers that would enter their jurisdictions. The policy remains in place today. Not only does it continue to fly in the face of the Refugee Convention, but the policy is being upheld even as the CDC’s new guidelines abandon scientifically proven methods for reducing the spread of COVID-19. Guidance released this week by the CDC does not require people to quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus.
For some asylum-seekers who have been waylaid in Mexico, recent court battles around MPP and Title 42 are simply added complications to an already confusing legal system. Julieta, who is using a pseudonym for safety reasons, told Prism she’d never even heard of MPP and had “no idea” if it would have any bearing on her ability to eventually enter the U.S.
It took just three days for Julieta and her partner to make the trek from Honduras to Mexico, and they have spent the last seven months living hand-to-mouth, first in Tapachula and then Monterrey. They go wherever they might find shelter or legal aid, Julieta explained. For the last five months, the couple has lived among a larger group of migrants in Piedras Negras, where many asylum-seekers have been sexually assaulted and kidnapped. Julieta’s sexual orientation puts her at increased risk of violence in Mexico—the same homophobic and gender-based violence she tried to escape in Honduras.
Julieta said that to be openly gay in her family and in her community in Honduras was to be “in hell.”
“The reason we migrated is because of the discrimination and homophobia we constantly experienced,” Julieta said. “In my country, people threatened my life. I was stabbed [because of my sexual orientation]. My family kicked me out. I feel so desperate because we are also afraid to be here [in Mexico]. We have been threatened and we are afraid of continuing to sleep on the streets.”
Last month, Border Report detailed how across Mexico’s border towns, “opaque waiting lists” to gain a chance at obtaining asylum in the U.S. have ballooned into the thousands. In Piedras Negras, when a migrant center’s list reached 2,000, no more names were added. It’s a confusing process, and as Border Report noted, “migrants often don’t know how to sign up or that lists even exist.”
This is the case for Julieta, who doesn’t know how to get on such a list or the steps she should take to request asylum in the U.S. She said that she has been waiting for legal aid or other assistance to guide her through the process, but no aid has come–and migrant centers and shelters don’t have the capacity to help individual people seeking asylum.
A Human Rights Watch report published in 2020 found that there is endemic violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in Honduras and other Central American Countries. In Honduras, more than 300 LGBTQ+ people have been killed since 2009, according to 2021 data from the Honduran advocacy group, Las Cattrachas. Julieta said that given past persecution—including being stabbed—she fears for her life in Honduras. Ostensibly this should make her a strong candidate for asylum, but the laws are complicated and confusing and Julieta said she can’t see a path forward without some kind of assistance. So, she waits in Piedras Negras for “some kind of miracle.”
“It is very laborious and confusing to enter the U.S. legally. I have thought about crossing illegally, but I can’t. It costs a lot of money and I don’t have any money. I don’t have papers to work in Mexico and I can’t even find a job because people discriminate against me,” Julieta said. She also explained she has family in the U.S. who won’t assist her because she’s gay.
While many in the U.S. have celebrated the end of MPP, it doesn’t have much effect on asylum-seekers like Julieta, who is at risk of physical harm each night that she and her partner sleep on the streets of Piedras Negras.
The life Julieta wants in the U.S. is simple, but right now it seems out of the realm of possibility.
“I just want a safe place to live and work,” Julieta said. “I don’t want to feel rejected by people anymore. I want to feel peace and be happy without fear of being hurt.”