'Vulnerable' Migrants Should Be Exempt From 'Remain In Mexico,' But Many Are Not
At first, the boy running around this migrant shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, appears to be just like any other 8-year-old: Skinny, shy, giggly. You don't even notice his glass eye.
But it's a constant source of worry for his family, who fled Guatemala earlier this year. The boy, Jonathan, lost his eye to a tumor when he was a toddler. Now he needs medicine to keep the eye clean.
"It's a very delicate sickness, very complicated," said his father Giovani, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. "He needs checkups frequently by medical specialists in the hospital."
Giovani says that care has been hard for the family to get in Juarez, the border town across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. And they're afraid to leave their church-run shelter to find care in this Mexican city where crime is rampant and migrants are targeted.
More than 15,000 migrants — including roughly 5,000 children — have been returned to Juarez and other border cities under the so-called "Remain In Mexico" policy. The migrants are waiting in those cities for their day in U.S. immigration courts.
While U.S. citizens are frequently warned by the State Department not to visit these border cities out of safety concerns, that's exactly where thousands of migrants are amassing after being returned to Mexico by the Department of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security says it will make exceptions for "vulnerable" migrants on a case-by-case basis. Its own guidance states that migrants with "known physical/mental health issues" should not be sent back to Mexico under the new policy.
It seems like a joke. My family did everything right.
But in practice, migrant advocates say, that's exactly what's happening.
"It seems like a joke," said Giovani, who asked that we not use his family's last name because he worries that speaking out would hurt his immigration case. "My family did everything right. We didn't hop over the fence or cross the river. But despite all that they're still sending everybody back," he said.
Giovani's says his family left Guatemala when his coffee farm failed, gangs tried to extort him, and the medical bills got to be too much. They waited months for a chance to legally enter the United States at a port of entry, and ask for asylum.
Giovani says he explained his son's medical needs to U.S. immigration officials in El Paso. But it didn't make any difference.
"It's a sham, just to say they gave them a chance," said Edith Tapia, an activist with the Hope Border Institute, a non-profit that works with migrants in Juarez and El Paso.
Tapia says U.S. officials have provided very little information about the program that's officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, and have not clarified who qualifies for an exemption.
"'Vulnerable populations' has been kind of vague," Tapia said. "They've used the example of members of the LGBTQ community. They've used kids or anyone with health issues. Sometimes pregnant women with certain conditions. But we've seen all of those cases be in MPP."
In some cases, immigrant advocates say, transgender women, pregnant women, and parents of children with special needs have been removed from MPP. But decisions on whether to include or exclude these groups have been "inconsistent," according to a recent report Human Rights Watch. "Attorneys arguing for other pregnant women to be excluded from the MPP have seen them returned to Mexico," the report said.
We also asked the Homeland Security Department to clarify who is eligible for an exemption. But a spokeswoman did not respond to our questions.
"Remain in Mexico" is supposed to relieve pressure on the overwhelmed immigration system in the U.S., while discouraging what the administration calls "meritless" asylum claims. And the number of migrants taken into custody after crossing the southern border did decline last month, for the first time all year.
"It appears that the implementation of MPP is easing at least some of the problem in some parts of the border," said Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in an interview with MSNBC earlier this month.
The agency Cuccinelli runs, USCIS, has set up a system for migrants to ask to be removed from MPP if they're afraid of returning to Mexico — migrants like Giovani, the Guatemalan father we met in Juarez.
Giovani met with an asylum officer, and tried to make a case for his family, to explain why they should be able to wait for their court hearings in the U.S. Giovani says the migrant shelter where they're staying is being monitored by a local gang. A corpse was found recently found in the street outside the shelter.
"Here in Juarez we didn't feel safe because five days before our appointment, there was a murder outside the shelter," Giovani said.
He also told the asylum officer about his son's eye, and his difficulties finding care for him.
But once again, he says, it didn't matter.
"I feel the asylum officer ignored me," Giovani said. "The asylum officer essentially said, 'If you've been able to survive in Juarez for the last few months, you can do it again.'"
Activists says hundreds of migrants have requested these interviews, but that only a handful have been removed from the "Remain in Mexico" program.
The rest are left to figure it out on their own.
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