The indefinite extension of travel restrictions across U.S. borders could also extend the monthslong wait most asylum seekers affected by the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program face for a court hearing into one that lasts for years, immigration attorneys say.
The White House on Tuesday extended a public health order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allowed the swift removal of migrants apprehended at the border to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
That has wreaked further confusion among nearly 60,000 asylum seekers sent to Mexico under the program formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. The program forces migrants to wait out their U.S. court cases in Mexico, often in dangerous border communities.
“It was a disaster before a pandemic and now it's even worse. Every day is essentially crisis mode,” Nicolas Palazzo, an El Paso-based immigration attorney, told CQ Roll Call.
Last week, the Justice and Homeland Security departments announced the pandemic had led to a fourth postponement of all MPP hearings, this time until June 19 at the earliest. Palazzo and other immigration attorneys say the collective delays are stretching a wait that averages between three to six months, depending on where along the border the migrants are located, to a year or more.
There have been at least 1,114 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping and other violent assaults against asylum seekers in MPP since the program started in February 2019, according to a report released last week by the advocacy organization Human Rights First.
Palazzo said even his MPP clients who are allowed to wait in shelters run by the Mexican government also are at risk — of contracting the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
“There's absolutely no space to socially distance. There's no space to self quarantine if you're sick. And there's very little access to basic hygienic materials like hand sanitizer,” he said. “People now are not only scared for their lives because of the crime violence in Mexico, but they are scared for their lives because they may die from the virus.”
Taylor Levy, another immigration attorney in El Paso, said hundreds of asylum seekers in MPP still approach the border daily because they don’t know their court dates have been postponed or they’re not sure how to get information about their new hearing. The Justice Department’s delay notices have been posted in English on social media platforms many MPP hopefuls never see, she pointed out.
“There is a lot of confusion,” said Levy, who suggested the recent restrictions may actually encourage migrants to try entering the U.S. unlawfully. “Even people who do know about the announcement, they are still showing up.”
Since the public health order was first implemented in late March, immigration officials have sent back more than 21,000 people, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied children, according to data released by DHS.
While the order has been in place, immigration officials have referred only 59 asylum cases to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Of those cases, only two asylum seekers were allowed to stay in the United States. USCIS rejected claims from 54 other migrants who said they feared torture or other types of grave harm if returned to their home country, while another three cases were pending as of May 13, DHS said.
Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told reporters on a conference call the Trump administration is reassessing the structure of MPP amid safety concerns brought on by the pandemic.
“Even when MPP opens back up and we start hearing asylum cases again, it’s going to look different on the other side,” he said, without providing any details.
The Trump administration maintains it considers any credible request for asylum. DHS told CQ Roll Call in a statement last week if a migrant “expresses a fear to return to their home country, then that claim will be promptly heard and considered in accordance with all applicable laws, policies, and regulations.”