Wendy Fry and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, San Diego Union-Tribune, August 4, 2019
If the Trump administration’s goal with its new immigration policy, Migrant Protection Protocols, is to encourage large numbers of migrants to abandon their asylum claims and return home, it appears to be working.
A Mexican official estimated Friday that about half of those returned to Baja California like Mejia have also decided to go home. Migrants have been returning mostly through private bus companies making exact figures hard to track, he confirmed.
Under the policy, better known as Remain in Mexico, asylum seekers from Spanish-speaking countries, including from the Northern Triangle, Nicaragua and Cuba, are sent to Mexico to await asylum proceedings in the U.S. with initial court dates often set months into the future.
Previously, asylum seekers were allowed to wait in the United States, usually in a detention facility or with a family member while their immigration cases proceeded in court.
During the past five months, the U.S. has returned about 20,000 asylum seekers to Tijuana, Mexicali, Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, according to Mexican officials. More than half of those returned, some 13,428, have been released into Baja California.
In Mexico, U.S. asylum seekers have been targeted by criminal groups and become victims of kidnappings, extortion scams, and human trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation.
After five months of the Migrant Protection Protocols program, not a single asylum seeker has been granted refuge in the United States, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which tracks immigration court records.
Researchers found that of the 1,155 cases under the Migrant Protection Protocols program that have been decided, only 14 of them had legal representation — that is just 1.2 percent.
In border cities across northern Mexico, thousands of of other migrant returnees were still trying to decide what to do.
Penniless and saddled with debt from their trip north, many decided to head south. Some still planned to pursue their U.S. immigration cases, but many more said they were trying to return home without being kidnapped or killed.
In Nuevo Laredo’s Tamaulipas state, more than 3,000 migrants have been returned, despite U.S. State Department warnings against travel due to kidnapping and other crimes.
Though it’s difficult to get an exact count on how many migrants are giving up and returning home after being returned to Mexico, shelter directors across Tijuana said the number is definitely increasing during the past few weeks as border shelters fill up and immigration court dates are pushed further and further out.
According to the TRAC data, which records 14,152 individuals in the MPP program through the end of June 2019, the vast majority of people have not yet had their first immigration hearing. Some 11,513 people are still waiting for their initial appearance.
But, of those who have had hearings, 701 people of the 2,639 people — or more than 25 percent — did not show up to their last appointment in immigration court. That percentage may increase because of longer waits for an initial appearance in U.S. immigration court.
When the “Remain in Mexico” program first started, most people were given return court dates a couple months in the future. In the last few weeks, those initial court dates are sometimes more than six months out. Several migrants who were returned to Tijuana last week said they were given initial court appearances for mid-to-late January, which they said is too long to wait in a dangerous border city.
Jesús Ruiz Uribe, Mexico’s federal delegate to Baja California, has been closely monitoring the number of migrants returning to Baja California from the U.S. every day and whether the shelters are becoming too full.
Although he did not have an exact count for how many migrants have returned home in recent weeks, he said he knows the number is significant because hundreds of new people are returned to Tijuana and Mexicali every day, but the shelters are not overflowing, according to Uribe. He estimated 50 percent of those returned decide to go home.
At the Agape shelter that Rivera runs, the Organización Internacional para las Migraciones (OIM) set up a table Thursday to sign up people for free flights home or voluntary departure.