Tafter that, asylum seeker Maria showed up for her scheduled court dates in El Paso, Texas, and was twice returned to Mexico by officials. For three months, Maria fought to be removed from the US government’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Stay in Mexico” policy, program that has officially ended.
Maria, 43, initially fled Colombia alone in May after receiving death threats from organized crime groups for refusing to pay extortion fees, she said. She left her elderly parents behind in hopes of reuniting with her niece in New York. But after arriving at the US-Mexico border, she was placed in an MPP and sent back to Mexico in June, where she now lives in a shelter for women seeking asylum in Ciudad Juarez, a city known for crimes against migrants and women.
“It was extremely difficult to leave [my parents] because I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to see them again,” Maria, identified by TIME by her middle name because she fears for the safety of her family in Colombia, tells TIME in Spanish. “So I already came from Colombia depressed and in bad shape and when they let me go [MPP]… Well, everything I ran away from in Colombia, I’m afraid to face here in Mexico.”
The Biden administration officially ended the controversial Trump-era policy — which required people with open asylum cases to wait in Mexico while their case was heard in the U.S. — on Aug. 8, after green light from the Supreme Court. But Maria and hundreds of others are still waiting in Mexico for weeks or months before being allowed to enter the U.S. because of a new process developed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that requires people on MPP to wait until their next court date. before they can be removed from the program. This system differs significantly from how the agency handled MPP terminations in the past with a process that allowed people to leave the program without having to wait for a court appearance.
“When you say [MPP is] end, it’s a bit deceiving because these cases are still ongoing. That’s the problem,” says John Bali, managing attorney at the Laredo, Texas office of RAICES, an immigrant advocacy and legal services nonprofit. “I think the Biden administration, they were caught a little bit off guard on how they were going to go about ending this.”
The Biden administration first tried to end the MPP in 2021, before conservative attorneys general sued and a Texas district judge required the administration to continue working with the program as the case made its way through the court system. In the roughly six-month period from 2021 before the Texas judge’s decision, asylum seekers enrolled in the first iteration of the MPP could fill out a form online, get tested for COVID-19 and be removed from the program to reopen their cases for asylum while living in the U.S. By the end of May 2021, more than 10,000 people in the MPP had been removed from the program in this way, according to Clearinghouse for access to transaction records, a research organization at Syracuse University. This time, no such process exists. Instead, MPP asylum seekers must wait until their next court date in the U.S. before they can be removed from the program and allowed to enter the country, meaning some will wait several more weeks or months.
DHS says the new process will make the system more efficient compared to the first shutdown in 2021. “Most individuals currently enrolled in the MPP have court cases scheduled in the coming weeks,” a DHS spokesperson told TIME in a statement. “In contrast, during the last administration’s 2021 shutdown of the MPP by the Biden administration, DHS found that many individuals did not have court dates, leading to costly and slow efforts to identify their whereabouts persons and coordinating their entry for immigration procedures.”
More than 71,000 people were enrolled in the MPP during the Trump administration, and under the Biden administration, an additional nearly 12,000 people were enrolled in the MPP as of July 31, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including Maria. As of July 19, there were 1,115 open MPP cases for people waiting in Mexico, according to DHS data.
Maria’s next court hearing is in early September. She’ll show up in El Paso and plead her case to an immigration judge — and like most people at MPP, she’ll do it without the help of a lawyer. She hopes then to finally be removed from the MPP.
“This is not a game”
Even when migrants have a court date scheduled in the US, it is far from certain that they will be removed from the MPP or granted asylum.
As of December, 88 percent of people who completed their MPP cases lost in court and were ordered removed from the U.S., according to DHS. 85% of those lost cases are the result of people missing court dates, a problem immigration advocates and lawyers say is a result of people not being able to travel safely from Mexico to ports of entry in USA. Of the 254 MPP cases that have been resolved on the merits so far, only 63 have resulted in asylum relief, according to DHS. (DHS did not respond to TIME’s question about whether the cases of those in MPP who missed court dates would be reopened.)
“It’s against them,” says Bali, the RAICES attorney. “It’s already hard enough to win and then when you’re in Monterrey, Mexico, living in a shelter or homeless … it’s impossible to prepare properly and have the documents you need, the documents the judges want to see and the evidence that they want see to approve an asylum case.
Many of the immigrant advocates and attorneys who spoke to TIME questioned why the Biden administration was able to parole almost 21,000 Ukrainians in the month of April at the US-Mexico border, an average of 700 per day, but has not instituted a similar expedited process for people below the MPP. The ongoing repeal of MPP “feels slow, stagnant, and I won’t lie to you, at this point, a little cruel,” said Priscilla Horta, supervising attorney for Project Corazon, a program of Lawyers for Good Government, a human rights advocacy organization. which runs free legal services programs. Horta says one of her teenage MPP clients told her she was sexually assaulted in Matamoros while she was waiting for her MPP court date. “Doesn’t DHS sense the urgency?” Horta says. “This is not a game… What if another person gets hurt, attacked, beaten, dies while waiting?”
As Maria waits for the day she can be removed from MPP, she has turned to self-help books to stay motivated. She reads Caminando Con Mi Mente (Walking With My Mind), by Colombian author Santiago Zapata, whose story of overcoming adversity and being a crucial player in her life brings comfort. “I love reading so many stories,” Maria says, “but especially the ones that take me to a good place.”
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