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New Data Provide Glimpse Into Wind-Down Of ‘Remain In Mexico’ Program

Two women and a young girl walk next to a stone wall topped with barbed wire. Their backs are to the camera. The woman in the middle holds the young girl's hand. The woman on the left carries a gym bag.
Mallory Falk
/
KERA News
A group of asylum seekers who have just been removed from the "Remain in Mexico" program cross into El Paso, Texas on February 26, 2021. They will spend a night or two at a local "hospitality site" before joining family throughout the U.S.

Houston and Dallas are among the top cities where asylum cases have been transferred as the Biden administration dismantles the Trump-era policy.

Nearly 4,000 asylum seekers who were previously enrolled in the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program have been able to enter the U.S. and transfer their cases to immigration courts throughout the country, according to new data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

The data show many of those cases have been transferred to courts in Miami, Houston, Orlando, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

Formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, the controversial policy required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as U.S. immigration judges decided their cases. These cases were assigned to special courts along the border, including tent courts in Brownsville and Laredo.

The Trump administration said MPP helped weed out weak or fraudulent asylum claims, but critics slammed the policy for forcing migrants to wait months or years in dangerous border cities, often in squalid living conditions and far from legal access.

“The Migrant Protection Protocols is one of the most comprehensive and direct assaults on the asylum system that we’ve seen in the modern era in the United States,” said Austin Kocher, a research professor with TRAC.

President Joe Biden suspended MPP on his first day in office, and is gradually allowing some 26,000 asylum seekers with active court cases to enter the U.S., out of around 70,000 who were initially placed in the program.

Part of that process includes transferring their cases out of MPP courts along the border and into immigration courts across the country. The cases get reassigned to courts near where the asylum seekers relocate, usually places where they already have family or sponsors.

A Deeper Look At The Data

According to the TRAC data, 3,911 cases were transferred out of MPP courts between the end of January and March 31. That’s about 15% of the 26,432 cases that were still pending when Biden took office. Nearly 80% of those cases were transferred out of MPP courts in El Paso and Brownsville, which have substantially more pending cases than the other three MPP courts, located in San Ysidro and Calexico, California and Laredo, Texas.

Kocher notes that number does not reflect how many asylum seekers who were enrolled in MPP have been able to enter the U.S. so far.

“There are more than 4,000 people who have been allowed into the United States and paroled,” Kocher said. “Due to relatively expected administrative delays and filing delays, not all of those individuals who have been allowed into the United States have actually had their cases transferred to the court that’s nearest to them, where they’re living now. So this is really a subset of cases.”

The highest number of cases, 651, were transferred to an immigration court in Miami. Houston courts received the second-most cases, followed by Orlando, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

Though more Guatemalan and Honduran asylum seekers were enrolled in “Remain in Mexico” than any other nationality, Cubans had the most pending MPP cases when Biden took office. Sixteen percent of those cases were transferred to non-MPP courts by the end of March.

Salvadorans had the highest percent of transferred cases; about 1 in 4 had their cases reassigned to non-MPP courts during the same timeframe.

“A principal reason for this was their tendency to be at the Brownsville port of entry where the processing had proceeded faster,” the TRAC report states.

A 'Very Orderly' Process

Earlier this month, Annunciation House Director Ruben Garcia described the MPP wind-down as “very orderly, very organized.

Garcia runs a network of temporary shelters or “hospitality sites” for migrants and refugees in the El Paso region. Hundreds of asylum seekers who were removed from MPP in Juárez have spent a night or two at an Annunciation House site before traveling to their final destinations throughout the U.S.

“The unwinding of the Migrant Protection Protocols, MPP, has been working incredibly well,” Garcia said at an April 8 press conference, noting that El Paso receives about 140 asylum seekers each weekday. “It was well-planned, well-organized. There are good partners on the Mexican side of the border.”

Kocher said people who are removed from MPP will now have a chance to go through the “normal” asylum process, with better access to legal counsel and fewer barriers to attending court proceedings.

“Being in Mexico made it harder to get an immigration attorney, and harder for individuals to attend their asylum hearings,” he said.

Some asylum seekers were required to arrive at ports of entry on their court dates at 4 a.m., in cities where migrants have been the targets of violence. There have even been incidents where people did not make it to their hearings because they were kidnapped.

“Now we are able to compare those cases that have already been closed — many of them because they didn’t or weren’t able to attend their asylum hearing — with cases that have been allowed into the United States, where individuals don’t have to cross an international border to go to court,” Kocher said.

Previous TRAC reports found that asylum seekers who were allowed to wait in the U.S. were more than seven times more likely to find an attorney than those sent to wait in Mexico under MPP, and that asylum seekers who obtain an attorney are five times more likely to be granted asylum.

Still, Kocher stressed that even the normal asylum process has its own issues.

“Even with the end of MPP, these individuals are coming into a system which was already broken before,” he said, pointing to the “unmanageable” immigration court backlog; asylum seekers who have already been waiting a year or more under MPP will likely have to wait several more years before their cases are decided.

“There are already major issues with due process and fairness within the immigration court system,” he continued. “There’s already wide discrepancies in terms of asylum outcomes based on which city someone goes to and which judge they get, which in the eyes of many undermines the legitimacy of those outcomes.”

Mallory Falk is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Mallory at Mfalk@kera.org. You can follow Mallory on Twitter @MalloryFalk.

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