New Asylum Policy Causes Chaos and Confusion in Courtrooms

By Shani Saxon Mar 25, 2019

Hearings began this month for migrants who claimed asylum at the United States/Mexico border, but were sent back to Mexico to await their hearing dates. Implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, informally referred to as "Remain in Mexico," has so far been rife with confusion about the policy’s rules, according to CNN. The news outlet reports: "Lawyers tried to seek answers to what should have been basic questions from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys, who seemed equally confused about the new administration policy keeping those migrants in Mexico."

As previously reported by Colorlines in January, the initial plan for MPP was to "bus asylum-seekers back and forth to the border for court hearings in downtown San Diego, including an initial appearance within 45 days." U.S. authorities, however, would not provide an opportunity for asylum-seekers to consult with attorneys. Those decisions are now reportedly causing more problems than they solve. 

CNN details the current process:


To attend the hearings, migrants, predominantly from Northern Triangle countries, presented themselves at the San Ysidro port of entry the morning of their hearing. Immigration and Customs Enforcement then managed the transport to and from the border and the San Diego immigration court, roughly 18 miles from the port of entry…. A little more than an hour before their hearings, asylum seekers were provided time to meet with lawyers in the courtroom—a new necessity given that they’re staying in Mexico and have limited access to lawyers based in the US…. As they met with lawyers, the detention officers slipped in and out of the room, unsettling immigrants in the waiting room attending their own hearings. "Seeing detention officers scares clients," said Aisha Ching, an immigration attorney whose client was unnerved by the officers.

Lindsay Toczylowski, an immigration attorney representing two asylum-seekers, spoke to CNN about the urgency of this situation. "Getting this right is a matter of life or death," she said.

"It seems like a very chaotic situation," added Robyn Barnard, an attorney representing two asylum seekers from Honduras. “Every time I had a question for chief counsel it was either met with ‘we don’t know’ or just silence."

CNN reports additional problems concerning official paperwork. One asylum-seeker received documents that had conflicting information; there was one date "to appear before an immigration judge (March 20) and a separate date to appear at the port of entry (March 30)." Those dates should match because the person has to appear at the port of entry before they can be transported to the courtroom. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) downplayed the mistake in a statement to CNN: "Of the MPP hearings that took place, only two scheduling issues—which were easily rectified—have been reported," the statement read. "The system is working. We are scrubbing every [Notice to Appear] to verify the correct dates are provided and continue to work closely with [Executive Office of Immigration Review] to ensure that all hearings take place as planned."

In February, immigrant advocacy groups asked a federal judge for a restraining order that would block MPP. Court documents show they argued against the policy as a threat to the lives of immigrants. "[Immigrants] are being returned to Mexico without any meaningful consideration of the dangers they face there, including the very real threat that Mexican authorities will return them to the countries they fled to escape persecution and torture." MPP will continue to roll out as planned unless the court grants the restraining order.