Trapped in Tijuana: Human rights violations under Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy

May 30, 2019, 1:14 a.m.

20 May 2019 at 7:18 a.m. | Soaked from the morning rain and through teary eyes, a group of three women from El Salvador tell us about why they left their country four months ago and what their lives have looked like since then. The woman in the middle is lesbian while the two at her sides are transgender. After receiving death threats from members of their communities who oppose their identities, they decided fleeing was their only option. Upon crossing into Chiapas, Mexico from Guatemala, all three were captured and prostituted. The woman on the right had just arrived at the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana today aftter struggling with having improper documentation. All three women have made the perilous journey north to Tijuana hoping to find safety in the United States. But safety is unlikely to come anytime soon. Upon arriving at El Chaparral today, the woman on the right was given a number in the 5,500s. The woman on the left arrived over two months ago, and her number, 2,550, will likely be called tomorrow.

A number, written on an inexpensive lined notebook, becomes the asylum seekers’ only hope for the two or three months they will have to wait in Mexico until their first hearing in the San Diego Immigration Court. They will be ‘paroled’ into the U.S. for the sole purpose of appearing at their master calendar hearings, and then, as a DHS attorney stated multiple times at the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) court in San Diego, they will “likely be returned to Mexico.” The majority of them are never asked if they fear for their lives while in Mexico. 

The “list managers” who are themselves asylum seekers are equipped with merely a tent, a few chairs and some old notebooks. They attempt to bring some order to the chaos created under President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy and exacerbated by MPP. The list managers set up around 6:45 a.m. and will be here until 9 or 10 a.m., depending on how many new asylum seekers arrive to put their names on the list.

On January 24, 2019, the U.S. launched the MPP policy, also known as “Remain in Mexico.” The policy prevents asylum seekers from entering and remaining in the U.S. after submitting their initial asylum claims. MPP has been operating despite numerous lawsuits claiming violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Administrative Procedures Act and the United States’ responsibilities under international human rights and refugee law. 

This policy allegedly excludes vulnerable populations, including children, members of the LGBTQ+ community, pregnant women and those with known physical and mental health issues. In practice, however, the U.S. government often ignores its own protocols. During our May 20 observation of San Diego’s MPP court, the judge reprimanded DHS for failing to complete an evaluation regarding a respondent’s mental health and for not specifying the standards that would disqualify respondents from the MPP program for mental health reasons. 

During the four-hour-long master calendar hearing, the judge continued to show his frustration at the process. After the DHS attorney told the judge that the respondents were not detained, the judge questioned her about why they were not free to walk out of the courtroom. These supposedly “non-detained” individuals did not have the liberty to speak to anyone, which we learned after one of us went over to speak to an asylum seeker whose case had just been heard and were immediately stopped by one of the security guards. 

These guards are contracted by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). Throughout the hearing they stood at the back of the room and controlled everything, down to when and which asylum seekers could use the restroom. When one of us inquired as to why we were not allowed to speak with the respondents, the guard answered that he was simply following the orders he received from his boss. Not even the family members of the asylum seekers were allowed to speak with their loved ones, and when one such woman asked the judge why this was the case, he responded, “I cannot answer that question.” This was a rule he had not made and was not charged with enforcing. 

One of us called ICE two days later to inquire about the third-party security guards with which they had contracted and to ask why they were preventing asylum seekers from speaking to observers and their families. The ICE representative on the phone said that they were simply following court rules and that this process was similar to when “a marshal escorts a criminal into court.” 

Her supposed “court’s rules” excuse fell flat in the face of the exasperation we witnessed on the part of the judge. In response to an asylum seeker who requested that he be permitted to stay in the United States, citing difficulty in finding a lawyer in Tijuana, the judge stated, “just to be clear, I am not designating that you return to Mexico.” He said this decision was made by DHS, who confirmed that the judge did not have the authority to parole the respondents or to allow them to stay in the U.S. 

When deciding on the files of those respondents who were not present in court, all but two were ordered removed from the U.S. All of them, including a 13-year-old boy who should have been excluded from MPP, had their notices to appear sent to a DHS-provided address in Tijuana that lacked both a street name and a number. However, this violation of the respondents’ due process rights was only enough to terminate one of the seven cases in which the respondents had not made it to court. 

Having witnessed how little ‘protection’ the Migrant Protection Protocols provide, we think back on the hopeful faces of the asylum seekers whose numbers were called this morning. One young girl jumped up and down when she heard her family’s number called, celebrating what should be the end of their waiting in Tijuana. But the uncertainty through which her family has been living will not end once they cross the border. Under the MPP policy, asylum seekers will continue to be tagged with red wristbands and escorted, like “criminals” to and from court only to be returned to the country they had spent so long waiting to leave; confusion will persist, and DHS will continue to lack accountability.

— Azucena Marquez ’19 and Isabel Vasquez ’20

Contact Azucena Marquez at azucenam ‘at’ and Isabel Vasquez at civ3 ‘at’

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