In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has effectively sealed off the border to asylum seekers and restricted immigration. One change affects migrants who have been sent to wait in Mexico as their asylum cases play out in U.S. immigration court as part of the “Remain in Mexico” program, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).
In the past, if migrants experienced violence and persecution while waiting, they could try to get removed from the program by requesting something called a non-refoulement interview. COVID-19 has complicated the process.
Non-refoulement is a principle of international human rights law — the idea that, if someone comes to your country seeking protection, you can’t send them back to a place where they’ll be persecuted. The concept came about after World War II.
“Much of this sprung out of the Holocaust,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy council for the American Immigration Council. “When many western countries, the United States among them, sent Jews seeking refuge back to Nazi Germany and many of those people then perished.”
Non-refoulement became the backbone of U.S. asylum law. It protects people from being sent back to danger.
And for asylum seekers who are now in MPP, it’s been a Hail Mary to try to get out of Mexico, where many fear for their lives. (A February report from Human Rights first found at least 1,000 cases of violent crime against migrants in the program, including kidnapping, rape and murder.)
Migrants who fear staying in Mexico can request non-refoulement interviews. If they pass, they can pursue their asylum cases from inside the U.S.
That’s what an asylum seeker named Alejandra hoped to do. (She asked that we not use her full name, while her case is still pending.)
She and her 13-year-old daughter have been living in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, since August. They were placed in MPP after fleeing violence in Guatemala.
They’ve bounced between shelters and shared rooms, cleaning houses when they can to earn a little money. Alejandra’s daughter is a technology buff and passes the time making YouTube tutorials, like how to solve a Rubik’s Cube or save videos to your cell phone.
“The first thing they tell you when you come here [to Juárez] is to be very careful,” Alejandra said in Spanish. “Be careful, it’s dangerous. We always tried to be really careful.”
But something terrible still happened, she said. One afternoon last winter, she went to pick up pizza and a new SIM card for her daughter’s phone.
“It was Sunday,” she said. “It was four in the afternoon. It wasn’t night. And true, I was alone — but downtown. It wasn’t what I thought was a dangerous place.”
Alejandra said she’d just gotten off the bus when a car approached. A man got out, grabbed her, covered her mouth and dragged her into the back seat. Alejandra said he raped her, then threw her out of the car.
She went to the police. Since then, she and her daughter have been living in fear.
“We would only go out to go to the store, together, and then back home,” she said.
Alejandra had a hearing for her asylum case scheduled for late March. This is the moment when she planned to ask for a non-refoulement interview — that’s how the process usually plays out. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck and her hearing was postponed.
In order to get a new court date, she had to show up at the port of entry. She wondered — could she still request a non-refoulement interview then?
“We haven’t received any guidance from the federal government about whether the non-refoulement interviews are officially continuing or have been halted,” said Brooke Bischoff, an attorney with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center who helped Alejandra during this time.
A Customs and Border Patrol spokesperson told KERA that non-refoulement interviews are now being handled on a case-by-case basis, after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order aimed at “prohibiting the introduction of certain persons into the United States who, due to the existence of COVID-19 in the countries or places from which persons are traveling, create a serious danger of the introduction of such disease into the United States.” This includes “keeping individuals who may be contagious from entering our facilities.”
The official said he could not provide data on how many non-refoulement interviews have been requested since the order went into effect, and could not share details about how the government determines who receives an interview, claiming that information could be “exploited by human smugglers.”
Bischoff said there’s no way to know how many people are requesting a fear interview and being turned away.
“Essentially, total control has been given to whoever is at the port of entry handing out new hearing dates,” she said. “We essentially have no oversight structure at all.”
Alejandra was able to request and receive a non-refoulement interview — she thinks because Bischoff had already filed paperwork. She explained what happened to her in Juárez and why she was afraid to stay there.
Alejandra said she wasn’t able to call her lawyer during the interview. She said officials claimed they couldn’t find Bischoff’s number, though Bischoff says it was on the paperwork she submitted.
Ultimately, Alejandra and her daughter were sent back to Juárez.
Bischoff said she wasn’t surprised; she’s seen many people who experienced violence get returned to Mexico.
“Non-refoulement interviews in my view were kind of this very bare minimum safety net,” Bischoff said. “It was never a failsafe option to get people out. But they did offer one shot at hope in particularly egregious situations.”
For now, Alejandra said, she’s in limbo, waiting for some unknown point in the future when the courts can reopen.
“I would like to be with my family that’s there in the U.S.,” she said through tears. “I don’t want to live like I am now. I’m not moving forward. I’m here in this place that makes me so afraid.”
It’s not clear how long Alejandra will have to stay in Juárez, as court dates keep getting postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.