Migrants on Border Face Confusion and Fear Under “Remain in Mexico” Policy

(TT– Minutes before being sent back into the federal government’s custody Thursday afternoon — and most likely back to Ciudad Juárez while his asylum case remains pending — Misael Acosta wanted to tell an immigration judge one last thing.

Acosta said he was in downtown Ciudad Juárez last week buying fruit for his daughter when he saw something startling.

“When I went to throw away some trash, I saw the body of a dead man” lying on the ground, he said in Spanish.

Acosta, 25, was one of many asylum seekers who told Judge Nathan L. Herbert essentially the same thing: Under a new policy by the Trump administration, the violence they escaped in Central America has followed them to Mexico, where the U.S. government sent them.

Acosta fled Honduras after criminal gangs and police officers threatened him and Katherin Molina, 22, the mother of their two daughters, they said. The family sought asylum at the El Paso port of entry in early April but was returned to Mexico the next day. They said they have been shuttled from shelter to shelter in Ciudad Juárez since.

They were part of the wave of asylum seekers who have been returned to Mexico under the expansion of a controversial program called the Migrant Protection Protocols. The program, also known as “remain in Mexico,” began in California in January and was expanded to the El Paso ports of entries in March; it requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their court dates before American judges.

The program’s future is now in the hands of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A federal judge in California temporarily blocked the program April 8, but a three-judge panel of the appellate court put that order on hold pending the Trump administration’s appeal of the ruling.

That means that the Acosta family and the other 13 other migrants in the El Paso courtroom Thursday for their asylum proceedings will likely be sent back to Mexico and won’t be able to return until their next court date, May 31. Their only option for remaining in the U.S. until that date is to convince an American immigration officer that they shouldn’t be returned, but that’s rare, said Christina Garcia, who works at El Paso’s Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.

Fear of returning to Mexico wasn’t the only issue on display in Herbert’s courtroom Thursday. When the migrant protocols were announced, immigration attorneys immediately sounded alarm bells over how the program would hinder migrants’ ability to find lawyers to help them navigate the asylum process.

None of the immigrant families had lawyers at Thursday’s hearing, and at one point Herbert asked the group if they understood they had a right to seek counsel, adding that he was willing to extend their hearing dates to give them time to find lawyers. All of the immigrants initially declined the extension, and a surprised Herbert paused the proceedings, went off the record and conferred with Garcia, who explained the judge’s offer in greater detail to the group.