“Out of sight, out of mind:” Six stories of asylum seekers and migrants under MPP

Jan. 29 is the anniversary of the implementation of a policy that has effectively stripped asylum seekers and migrants of their human rights. The enactment of the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, has become yet another symbol of dark times. Its anniversary reminds us of the erosion of asylum law and the curtailment of constitutional values. Amid charged political times, vulnerable asylum seekers and migrants waiting in desperate conditions at the border seem to have fallen “out of sight and out of mind.” However, through Estamos Unidos, CLINIC has continued to shed light on this injustice.

MPP, known among advocates and immigrant rights groups as Remain in Mexico, was first implemented in Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego. Months later, in March 2019, the ill-conceived policy was rolled out in Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. The following stories demonstrate the adversity, insecurity and void asylum seekers face while stranded in Mexico, while waiting for their next immigration hearing.

  1. Cecilia* and her two minor children have been in Ciudad Juarez for five months. She is a single mom who is HIV positive. Her partner withheld his HIV positive status from her for a long time. The mother and her children are survivors of domestic violence. They were placed under MPP in September 2019; since then, they have been staying in a shelter. Her teenage daughter has a disability and has gradually retreated into her own world. She is constantly fearful of “something bad happening” to her or her mother. She, as well as her younger brother, suffered sexual abuse from a close family member.

    Cecilia is a strong woman who radiates positivity. She keeps busy at the shelter, helping in the kitchen or teaching the children. However, she needed to be on a strict medical regimen and counted on the Seguro Popular for her medication. However, the Mexican government recently canceled the program — leaving Cecilia without access to her medication. Local organizations have unsuccessfully tried to find a way to help Cecilia continue her treatment. As a single mother, she is the only caretaker of her children. They must travel eight hours by bus to Laredo to attend each hearing. They still do not have a final hearing date.
  2. Jessica* is a young woman alone in Juarez. She fled Guatemala due to gang violence and was placed under MPP in late 2019. She is almost six months pregnant. A mother who shares space with Jessica at the shelter said the young woman has been feeling pain in her belly and lays on a floor mat in the room, fearful of leaving the shelter and seeking help. The seasoned mother of four, who has much experience touring the city for medical attention, insisted that Jessica’s pain was constant and worrisome. Two women, a baby and two teens went in search of medical aid for Jessica. Two buses and much walking later, they arrived at a government facility that aids women. However, the staff only directed the group to a family clinic nearby. They found the clinic and Jessica was finally seen by a medical professional. She has a high-risk pregnancy and a miscarriage is probable. The doctor gave her medicine and told her she must be on bed rest. However, every small task can have detrimental implications: a shower entails filling a bucket or two of cold water and carrying it to the bathroom. Eating a healthy diet means walking unpaved uneven roads to the supermarket and carrying groceries back. At the moment, Jessica’s family is unable to send her money, because she does not have a passport. Therefore, when the money is sent to another person to retrieve, the wire transfer company blocks the funds. The community around her helps however they can, but doctors say the stress and anxiety only worsens her physical state.
  3. Virginia* is a Venezuelan asylum seeker in her 50s who is fleeing persecution. When asked if she feared being in Mexico, her expression became hardened and teary-eyed. She had already requested a fear interview with U.S. immigration authorities in November. Despite telling them about the xenophobic treatment and assaults she experienced in Mexico, she was returned to Ciudad Juarez. She expressed fear of and frustration over being in Mexico because she, like many, was targeted for being a foreigner and not believed. Since she was returned, Virginia said she was targeted by local law enforcement as she asked for directions to a market in downtown Ciudad Juarez. The officers heard her accent, identified her as a foreigner and requested to see her permit to be in Mexico. She was calm and confident that she had everything in order. She showed them her papers, and they accused her of having false documents. They threatened to detain her unless she paid them. She did not have the money they demanded. The two local police officers in broad daylight forced her onto their official truck and told her to provide payment in-kind, and sexually assaulted her. She tried to fight but could not; after some time, she started vomiting and the officers pushed her out. Virginia fears that U.S. immigration authorities will not believe her, and she will be returned to Juarez again if she has the opportunity to request another fear interview with U.S. immigration authorities.
  4. Esperanza* is a young woman fleeing from El Salvador. She left behind everything and everyone she holds dear. She arrived in Chihuahua, Mexico, in August 2019 and was kidnapped before arriving at the U.S. border. Esperanza was kept locked up in a warehouse for a month. Those responsible beat her until she gave them her father’s phone number, who paid the ransom. After weeks, she was dumped in a ditch near the Rio Grande. It took all her might to walk, as she had no idea where she was. Men on horseback helped her. She later realized they were U.S. officials. They asked her what happened to her, and she explained. They asked her questions about herself and handed her papers she did not understand. After a couple of days, she was told by one of the officers to come back on the date the paper said and to tell her story when she came back. U.S. immigration authorities returned Esperanza to Ciudad Juarez under MPP. 

    Esperanza was returned after dark and with nowhere to go, leaving her vulnerable to the violence and insecurity of the city. She was kidnapped a second time. This time there were three other women and two children with her. Her father was again contacted in Guatemala, but he was not able to pay. Tears streamed down her face as she told them her family had nothing to exchange for her release… for her life. The perpetrators forced her to repeatedly watch a video of a woman being tortured. Esperanza believed she was going to end up the same. Fortunately for her, a woman helped them escape.
  5. Rosy* is a survivor of gender-based violence who fled gang violence with her mother and younger brother. Her nightmares and night sweats are frequent and exhausting. The shelter where she and her family are staying has provided sporadic psychological support. However, she recently was approached by a gang member from her home country. He let her know that he would make her suffer if she informed anyone he was a gang member. The little progress she made during the months of waiting in Ciudad Juarez has faded and the ghosts of suicidal ideations have returned. She was brave and told someone about the threats, and the gang member was eventually removed from the shelter. But for Rosy the damage had been done. Rosy is still under MPP and desperately waiting for her hearing date.
  6. Doña Alma* is a grandmother who fled her home country in Central America due to gang violence. On her journey north, she was kidnapped by a cartel in Mexico. Her family was able to pay her ransom, but money did not save her from the beatings and assault. The men took all her documents and her cellphone, along with all her personal information. She was placed under MPP several months ago, and in December 2019, her family members were contacted and told she was detained in the United States and on her way out, which was a lie. When the family became suspicious and confronted the caller, the man openly identified himself as the one responsible for her previous kidnapping. He knew exactly where Doña Alma was in Mexico and threatened to harm her if he did not receive the sum of money he demanded. MPP makes Doña Alma a target for more suffering.

These stories show the severe and inhumane repercussions of the Migrant Protection Protocols, and the dire conditions and critical needs of those waiting in Mexico under the policy. Twelve months after MMP’s implementation, affected communities, advocates, leaders and volunteers have been working tirelessly to uphold the right to asylum and protect the dignity of men, women and children at the border. Estamos Unidos started operations in August 2019.Since then, staff and volunteers have provided know your rights presentations, individual consultations, translations of asylum documents, connection to pro bono counsel and general accompaniment aligned with our faith-based identity. During the first quarter of operations last year, Estamos Unidos helped 1,000 individuals in more than 309 consultations, 39 Know your Rights Presentations providing education to over 1000 people and alongside a dedicated group of 30 legal and administrative volunteers. Asylum seekers and migrants’ resilience and hope is unwavering and inspires those who fight for justice every day.

*All names have been changed to protect identities.