Migrants at border fence
Migrants at the border fence in Tijuana. Courtesy Pueblo sin Fronteras

On the one-year anniversary of a federal policy requiring asylum seekers crossing the southern U.S. border to remain in Mexico while their cases are pending, a group of legal service providers and civil- and human-rights organizations gathered in San Diego Wednesday to demand its revocation.

The groups, among them the ACLU Foundation, Al Otro Lado, American Friends Service Committee, Human Rights First, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, Innovation Law Lab and Jewish Family Service of San Diego, have taken to calling the Migrant Protection Protocols the “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The groups say the policy deprives people of protection and legal resources.

“The U.S. government continues to knowingly send vulnerable people — including numerous families with young children — back to extremely violent and precarious conditions within Mexico, with clear disregard for U.S. laws, international obligations and the moral imperative to protect human life,” said Kate Clark, director of immigration services at Jewish Family Service of San Diego.

The Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday it was expanding the protocols to include Brazilian migrants as well.

“The number of Brazilian nationals arriving at the southwest border has tripled in just the last year,” according to a DHS statement. “MPP is one of many tools the department has implemented to ensure those with meritorious asylum claims are timely adjudicated, while fraudulent claims are property identified.”

The program was first implemented at San Ysidro Port of Entry, and it has since expanded across the entire southern border.

The groups gathering Wednesday said that since the protocols went into effect — on Jan. 29, 2019 — more than 60,000 asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico, 27,500 to the Tijuana-Mexicali region. These include migrants and asylum seekers from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela, among other countries.

Human Rights First, a nonprofit, nonpartisan human-rights organization and one of the groups calling for the policy to end, claims it has documented at least 816 publicly reported cases of kidnapping, rape, torture and other violent attacks against asylum seekers forced to return to Mexico as a result of the policy.

“Each day the situation at the border further deteriorates. MPP has intentionally forced thousands into the streets of notoriously dangerous border towns and overcrowded shelters with unsanitary conditions,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center. “There are very few attorneys and legal service providers available to provide life-saving legal assistance to this exposed population in Mexico.”

Earlier this month, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties won a preliminary injunction in a federal class-action lawsuit challenging the DHS’ refusal to grant access to counsel in MPP interviews, which determine if people in the protocol will be forced to continue in the program despite concerns about returning to Mexico.

The order requires DHS to provide in-person legal visitation in preparation for, and lawyers’ participation during, the non-refoulement interviews.

“Despite ongoing advocacy and litigation efforts to mitigate the harms of MPP, the policy continues to terrorize families and individuals seeking safety in the U.S.,” said Ian Philabaum, director of border programs, Innovation Law Lab. “This program would be more appropriately called the `Migrant Persecution Protocols,’ because it puts asylum seekers directly in harm’s way.”

The DHS claims the program is an effective way of dealing with a backlog of cases at the border.

“MPP has been a crucial element of the department’s success in addressing the ongoing crisis, securing the border, and ending catch and release,” according to the department. “MPP remains a cornerstone of the department’s efforts to restore integrity to the U.S. immigration system and relieve the crushing backlog of pending asylum cases. Our nation is more secure because of the program.”

— City News Service