In 2018, when the Trump administration enacted its infamous policy of separating asylum-seeking families who were caught crossing the border illegally, a firestorm of concern, criticism, and legal challenges soon followed. A judge eventually ruled that the practice of sending the parents to jail and their children to government custody — or into "foster care or whatever,” as the then-White House chief of staff put it — was unconstitutional and ordered government officials to reunite the kids with their parents.
Yet this administration found another way to pursue the same goal of preventing families from seeking asylum at the border. This time it is happening without as much public outrage. The policy known as Remain in Mexico, under which tens of thousands of asylum-seeking migrants have been sent to Mexico to wait for their asylum cases to be heard by an immigration judge, is just as insidious as the family separation model. With this policy, Trump has decimated our asylum system and created government-sanctioned refugee camps along the Mexican side of the border where asylum-seekers are left completely vulnerable to the same type of lawlessness from which they fled.
And the devastating effects are reverberating locally. Maudy Constanza has been living with relatives in Ashland since August, a month or so after she fled her native Guatemala with her partner Hanz and their three young children. Hanz was a successful small business owner in a town 100 miles or so outside Guatemala City. Last year he witnessed a violent crime, during which he was shot. The family spent a year in hiding trying to evade the individuals who shot him, until they decided to move to the United States and seek asylum. Shortly before attempting to enter the United States near Reynosa, Mexico, the family split up. Upon entering the country, Maudy and the couple’s two young daughters were screened and released to pursue their asylum case here, while Hanz and their 9-year-old son were sent to wait in Mexico under the Remain in Mexico program, formally known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols.”
“This use of MPP is effectively another form of family separation,” said Susan Church, Maudy’s immigration attorney. Hanz and the couple’s son have been living at a shelter in Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas, until their next court date in February. “This family has a relatively strong asylum case," Church said. “That’s not easily said in this day and age when there’s been so much chipping away at the protections asylum-seekers get in this country." But the fact that the family is separated hurts their case, according to Church. The asylum case for Hanz and the son, now under MPP, is on a separate track, while Maudy’s and their daughters’ case will be heard in Boston. Hanz’s odds of winning asylum are lower than Maudy’s, even though they will be making the same case. Under MPP, approval rates have been in the low single digits, while the success rates for asylum seekers in Boston are in the 40 to 60 percent range, depending on the judge, according to Church.
The family’s situation highlights the inequity and unfairness of the current asylum procedures. Since Remain in Mexico was put in place in January, more than 60,000 asylum-seekers have been forced to wait in some of the most dangerous areas in Mexico. The tragic result has been an unprecedented humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border.
“In Matamoros, we now have what’s been called the worst refugee camp in the world,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, referring to a camp in Matamoros, the Mexican city across the border from Brownsville, Texas, where roughly 2,000 people are living under tents in squalid conditions.
“The United Nations isn’t there, the US government isn’t there, and the Mexican government isn’t helping, either,” said Reichlin-Melnick.
In the coming weeks, the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Church are planning to file a lawsuit on Maudy’s behalf, alleging that the separation of her family violates due process. There have been at least two other major MPP-related lawsuits. Adriana Lafaille, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said the Trump administration implemented the policy despite having an obligation not to return people to countries where they would be persecuted. “They did so without any reasonable plan for how to handle the safety of these migrants and how to evaluate whether it was safe to return them to Mexico.”
While waiting in Mexico, Hanz and their 9-year-old have survived two kidnapping attempts, Maudy said. “Hanz and my son were inside a store in Nuevo Laredo when three unknown men approached them and demanded that they go with them,” Maudy said in an interview in Spanish at the Metrowest Worker Center in Framingham. “They were so scared and did not know what to do because the men got increasingly agitated and kept saying ‘you have to come with us.’ Hanz told me someone at the store called the cops but they never showed up. They saw no option but to walk out with them under pressure and just as they reached the store entrance, Hanz saw some soldiers nearby and immediately started calling them to come. When the three men saw the soldiers walking over, they fled.”
“My son wakes up in a panic in the middle of the night, still scared of what they went through,” Maudy said through tears.
Hanz and the boy were relatively lucky, compared with other families. Human Rights First, an advocacy organization, has documented more than 600 cases of violent attacks — such as kidnapping, rape, torture, assault, and other crimes — against asylum-seekers who have been sent to Mexico under MPP. Earlier this month, a man from El Salvador was murdered in Tijuana where he was sent to wait for his asylum case.
MPP is also undermining access to legal counsel. Only about 4 percent of those forced to wait in Mexico had secured legal representation. Asylum seekers in the United States are seven times more likely to have a lawyer.
All of this flies in the face of the Trump administration’s claim that MPP is a humane way to manage the increasing number of migrant families seeking asylum in the United States. In September, Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said in a press briefing: MPP “discourages the abuse and exploitation of US laws and non-meritorious or false asylum claims.”
But MPP is instead penalizing legitimate asylum-seekers by establishing more barriers for them to overcome. And it is the most desperate who suffer the most. They are the ones who stay and wait for their cases to be heard. “The kind of person most obviously affected by these punitive policies of deterrence is the person who is most in need of protections,” said Reichlin-Melnick.
Maudy’s family is a case in point.
“It’s so horribly unfair, there are so many separated families and children suffering,” she said, barely able to speak through tears. “If I came here, it is because I had to leave and I wanted my children to have the opportunity to live in peace.”
Marcela García is a Globe editorial writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.