The Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, has so far forced more than 57,000 migrants to wait in Mexico while their immigration cases wind through U.S. immigration court.
Critics claim that MPP endangers the lives of migrants. A recent analysis by Human Rights First found 340 publicly reported instances of kidnapping, rape, torture and other types of violence against migrants returned to Mexico under MPP.
Administration officials and Republican lawmakers defend it, arguing it weeds out potentially false claims and shortens the wait times for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.
But a group of migrants in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, may best illustrate the heavy price of daily life under the MPP's legal restrictions.
A small, nondescript downtown house is guarded by a large lock. There's a curtain in front of a big wooden door, and behind it is small residence crammed with people.
Central American refugees, mostly mothers and their children, sit on the floor of a hallway.
“There’s not another place that we were able to find, and we’re renting it. We’re renting the house for them to stay here,” said Ruth Ortiz. She is the daughter of Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz, who provides food, clothing and shelter for the asylum seekers.
“This place is needed, and we will continue to help,” she said.
About 100 people are in the shelter. Every space is taken up. As an extra sleeping area, the little concrete back patio is filled with cots and clotheslines. Residents use that space until the weather turns bad.
On some days, Pastor Ortiz travels to Monterrey, where he runs another refugee house. He will sometimes shuttle asylum seekers from that city to Nuevo Laredo so they can attend their immigration court hearings.
“I got six people coming with me from Monterrey coming for their hearings tomorrow,” he said. “And then I gotta go straight on the bridge there and pick up the ones that are there already. There are about 80 people who are already waiting.”
The immigration court hearings are held in white circus tents set up next to the international bridge in Laredo, Texas. The asylum seekers line up at four in the morning. They are allowed to cross for a video link hearing with an immigration judge. Then they are sent back to Nuevo Laredo, where they wait for their next court date.
This is the system that was established last June. It has dramatically decreased the number of asylum seekers allowed to wait in the U.S. while their cases are adjudicated.
In Matamoros, a refugee camp was set up for people waiting for their court dates. But that has not happened in Nuevo Laredo. The city is so dangerous that authorities would not allow a camp to operate out in the open.
“In Nuevo Laredo, people are really in hiding rather than out in the open,” said Sister Denise LaRock, who brings supplies from San Antonio for the refugees.
“In Matamoros, they are out in the open but they are very close to the port of entry. Whereas here (in Nuevo Laredo) they really are in hiding. They can’t go out of the house,” she said.
They are hiding from the cartels. According to a 2018 State Department report, there are no safe areas in border cities like Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo “due to gunfights, grenade attacks, and kidnappings.”
The State Department has labeled Tamaulipas, the Mexican state that includes Nuevo Laredo, as a “Level 4” threat risk, alongside Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia.
The cartels prey on the Central American refugees by kidnapping them and torturing them until their relatives pay a ransom.
“There was one time that the bad guys came," recalled Santiago, the shelter manager who requested TPR only use his first name. "The cartels came here.”
He said gunmen burst in and ordered everyone on the ground. They wanted to know who was running this human smuggling operation. When they learned it was a Christian group helping migrants and not a rival cartel, they left. But Santiago says everyone is afraid the cartel can return at any time.
At the shelter, a woman from Guatemala who did not want her name published out of fear, explained how she had been kidnapped in Mexico.
For eight days along with other migrants she was tied up with tape over her mouth. She managed to get free, climb out a window and find her way to this shelter.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security heard testimony on the policy.
Laura Pena, an attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, told lawmakers that “Remain in Mexico” was a violation of U.S. law and it endangered the asylum seekers.
“Asylum seekers are being returned to dangerous cities where organizations have documented... hundreds of incidents of kidnappings and violence,” she said.
But U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican ranking member on the committee, defended the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
“I wholeheartedly support the 'Remain in Mexico' policy. I think it’s an essential policy and in no way inhumane. MPP discourages non meritorious or false asylum claims and actually helps decrease the wait time for immigrant court hearings,” said Rogers.
However, the Guatemalan woman from the shelter might disagree. She said she had a message for President Donald Trump: Mexico is a very dangerous place. She hopes he hears about what is happening in Nuevo Laredo and that it touches his heart.