Migrants who want to seek asylum in the U.S. wait outside the San Ysidro Port of Entry to have their numbers called out. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

One year ago, the Department of Homeland Security launched its Migrant Protection Protocols – commonly referred to as “Remain in Mexico” – at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. This abhorrent and unjust policy forces people from all over the world who cross our southern border seeking refuge in the United States to return to and remain in Mexico through the duration of their asylum proceedings, thus depriving them of U.S. protection and access to legal assistance and other resources.

Immigrants’ and civil rights organizations on both sides of the border knew that, despite the program’s name, people’s lives would be put in peril. What we have observed and have heard from our clients in San Diego and Tijuana in a year’s time has been worse than anything anyone could have imagined.

Jewish Family Service of San Diego is one of the few organizations in our region proving legal assistance to people forced into MPP. And the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against MPP.

One client is a teenage girl and her 1-year old daughter – yes, the mother is a minor – who were also forced to return to Mexico under MPP. This is a violation of DHS’s own guidelines against enrollment of unaccompanied minors in the program. To attend their court hearings in San Diego, the young mother and daughter had to travel to the San Ysidro Port of Entry in pre-dawn darkness.

The United States has long been a refuge for people from all over the world forced to flee their home countries in search of peace and safety. But our asylum system is being systematically dismantled by the current administration using tools such as MPP.

The U.S. government has forced more than 60,000 people to remain in Mexico since the launch of MPP one year ago. Of that number, more than 27,500 people were returned to the Tijuana-Mexicali region. According to Human Rights First, there are more than 800 reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnappings or other violent assaults of people subjected to this policy.

The brunt of the administration’s efforts is felt in communities on both sides of the border.

Legal aid providers and immigration attorneys in San Diego are working hard to understand the complexities of MPP and determine how to help potential clients stuck in Mexico. In Tijuana and Mexicali, MPP is generating confusion and misinformation in a region that has little to no legal services infrastructure for migrants.

Making matters worse, people in MPP have limited to no access to other supportive services, including critical medical and behavioral health support. Such support and services are accessible to people who remain in the U.S. during their asylum proceedings. Many access this vital assistance through the Jewish Family Service Migrant Family Shelter in San Diego.

In November 2019, the ACLUF-SDIC filed a class-action lawsuit demanding that people seeking asylum who expressed a fear of retuning to Mexico be given access to their lawyers.

The plaintiffs in the case, a Guatemalan couple and their five children, were returned to Mexico despite having already suffered an armed robbery during which they were stripped naked. While in Mexico under MPP, members of the family have been without secure housing and experienced beatings and robbery.

While the lawsuit is ongoing, the court has granted a preliminary injunction that opens the door for people in MPP to have access to counsel while detained in U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities.

We knew that MPP would not protect migrants from physical harm, but the policy is also an egregious attack on their right to due process. As a result of the mass implementation of MPP, nearly every other immigration court case in San Diego have been postponed. Most asylum-seekers in MPP have no legal counsel or a clear understanding of what is happening to them.

For all these reasons, we renew our commitment to challenge MPP by representing vulnerable people, one at a time, by showing up in local courts to conduct “Know Your Rights” presentations and filing lawsuits in federal court.

We urge all San Diegans to join the fight by calling their congressional representatives and demanding an end to this inhumane and unlawful policy that our federal government is carrying out on our behalf.

This must be a collective effort, because it will take all our voices to say: #RestoreAsylumNow and end MPP.

Norma Chávez-Peterson is executive director of the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties. Michael Hopkins is CEO of Jewish Family Service of San Diego.

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