Something Worse Than Family Separations
I didn’t think I’d ever see anything as cruel as the family separations of 2018. Our collective anguish and horror over border patrol agents tearing children from their parents’ arms and vanishing them into a system without tracking who belonged to whom eventually created change. Donald Trump reversed course after the public outcry last summer, with help from a federal judge ordering him to halt the separations. In the intervening months, we’ve weathered news stories of ongoing separations, public charge rules, asylum bans, the transit ban, the attack on sanctuary cities, and the reduction of refugee allocations. I know it’s a little numbing. But I’m here to tell you that we’ve reached a new low. MPP is worse than family separations.
The Migrant “Protection” Protocol (MPP), otherwise known as the Remain in Mexico program, is the plan under which asylum seekers who speak Spanish are turned back to Mexico during their asylum process. Since this summer, over 50,000 migrants have been returned to Mexico, where many are forced to live in a makeshift refugee camp next to the international bridge. The camp is dangerous and unsanitary.
There is no humanitarian organization overseeing the camp. Any water, electricity, medical care, clothing, blankets, or other aid is provided by volunteer organizations like Team Brownsville or Angry Tias and Abuelas of the RGV.
I visited the camp last weekend and was absolutely and completely overwhelmed by how awful things are at the camp. I was traveling with two other seasoned immigration attorneys and we took turns sobbing over the horror of it all as we walked through the camp. We saw tents made out of trash bags, dirty pack n’ plays for babies set up right next to the road full of exhaust fumes, sick people hoping to get medical care at the volunteer medical tent, kids bathing in the river, and so many children.
I met baby M, whose mother came to the bridge in labor and was sent back to Mexico. Baby M is two months old and has only known life in a makeshift refugee camp, without even the trappings of a typical refugee camp – food, water, shelter, and medical care.
The migrants live in danger. Drug cartels have seized upon the opportunity to use the migrants for economic gain. They are regularly kidnapped and held for ransom, as most have family members in the US who can scrape some money together for their release. The going rate is about $6,000 per person. Sexual assault against women and girls in the camp happens daily. It has gotten so bad that many parents have chosen to send their children across the bridge alone so that they can be processed into the country as unaccompanied minors.
After we walked around the camp, we reported to a local attorney that we felt safe while we were there. Her response: “You weren’t. The cartels have lookouts on every corner, and they knew you were there.”
Providing legal representation to the migrants is near impossible. They are expected to prepare their asylum applications and evidence in English while living in tents. The day of their court hearing, they line up at 4:30am outside the court and will spend all day waiting with their kids for their moment in front of the judge, who often resets their case for months in the future. Almost none will win, despite having strong claims for asylum: many have been persecuted by their own government – Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and Central Americans. Of the 47,313 people whose cases were filed between January and September, only 2.3% have legal representation and only 11 have been granted asylum or other legal status, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which tracks immigration court data. It is an impossible system.
It’s tempting to look away from something so hopeless. But there is something we can do. I urge you to support organizations providing humanitarian and legal support. There are many, but in this article, I will highlight Team Brownsville and Angry Tias and Abuelas for humanitarian aid and VECINA.org for legal work. I serve on the board of VECINA, a mentoring organization that provides training and mentoring to pro bono attorneys who take MPP cases. If you are lawyer reading this, stay tuned for a training in January offered by the Austin Bar Association and VECINA on how to do pro bono MPP work! Thank you for your help in this important fight. And as always, your energy is never wasted supporting candidates who will reverse these awful policies. Blockwalk, canvas, phone bank, and donate to campaigns you believe in. Oh, and hug your family tight this holiday season. If you’re safe and warm, you’re pretty lucky.