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Dangerous conditions persist as migrants wait for Biden administration to stop 'Remain in Mexico' program

Despite the Biden administration recently receiving approval from the Supreme Court to end the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, thousands of asylum-seekers remain stuck in dangerous conditions in Mexico, advocates and migrants said.

Some migrants said they are waiting in constant fear and deplorable surroundings, often in crowded shelters in cities where there have been numerous reports of violence and threats, such as kidnapping, extortion and sexual assault.

“We live with this daily fear of leaving the shelter that something will happen to us,” said a 27-year-old fleeing political retribution in Venezuela. Among the fears, he said: “Being killed in the streets.”

Migrants talk in front of portable toilets in a camp in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 8.Gregory Bull / AP file

The Venezuelan migrant, who asked that his name not be used because of fear for his safety, said he has been threatened by another migrant in the shelter in the dangerous Mexican border city of Juárez, where he has been forced to wait for about six months. The man told him that if he saw him leave the shelter, he would send people to find him. He has left the shelter only when escorted by staff to go to work.

“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” he said.

Remain in Mexico, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, required people seeking asylum at the southern border, mainly from Central America, to wait in Mexico while their claims were decided.

From late January 2019 until Biden suspended the program in 2021, about 70,000 people were sent back to Mexico. Tent cities sprang up near border entry stations on the Mexican side of the border. Human rights groups said hundreds of asylum-seekers were kidnapped, raped, tortured or assaulted.  

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said the policy “has endemic flaws and causes unjustifiable human tragedy.”

The Biden administration repeatedly tried to end the program, but restarted it again after being rebuffed in court following challenges from Missouri and Texas, which argued that after Biden ended the policy, the number of migrants trying to enter the country skyrocketed.

On June 30, the Supreme Court ruled that Biden could shut down the program.

But the Biden administration earlier this month said it needed to wait “several weeks” to be able to end the program so the Supreme Court decision can be communicated to the lower courts, ABC News reported. 

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The slow pace leaves migrants who are still in Mexico vulnerable, said Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney who has represented asylum-seekers in the Remain in Mexico program.

“Our perspective is not if they’re going to be victimized when they are in Mexico, but when,” Levy said. “We’re constantly fielding calls about horrific things.”

She said she hoped the Biden administration would do “everything in its power to implement this decision as quickly as possible.”

A 38-year-old man who fled political violence in Nicaragua said he fears being kicked out of the Juárez shelter he has called home for months, despite its crowded conditions. The man, who said he hears gunshots outside the building every day, asked that his real name not be used because of fear for his safety and potential retribution. He said he knows fellow migrants who have been kidnapped and extorted for money as they waited for a chance to claim asylum in the United States.

On the way to the U.S. border, the man said he and more than 100 other migrants were left to “suffocate” in a large container and abandoned by the coyotes smuggling them.

“We had no air. Children were crying, women were fainting. Everyone began to scream. We thought they were going to let us out,” he said. They eventually escaped, but many were injured and a pregnant young woman and another migrant died, he said.

The shelter in Mexico has also brought dire conditions, he said.

“There’s so much more danger here,” he said.

Marysol Castro, an immigration attorney with the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, Texas, has represented migrants in the “Remain in Mexico” program since it was implemented by the Trump administration in 2019. 

“The stories from my clients, I mean, they’re being raped, they’re being kidnapped, they’re being robbed, they’re being threatened, extorted,” said Castro, who also represents the Venezuelan man.

Castro said she also represented a Cuban woman who was harassed and raped by a Mexican police officer – and needed surgery following the attack – after being forced to wait in Mexico under the program in 2019. 

She said the woman fled Cuba only to live “the worst moment of her life” in Juárez “when she was actually going to look for safety.”

Following the Supreme Court ruling to end the program, Castro said she has told her clients that while the decision is good news, she doesn’t know exactly how things will play out.

“But we do eventually want to figure out how we’re going to get them over,” she said.

Back in the shelter in Juárez, the man from Venezuela said the migrants have been villainized both in the U.S. and in Mexico. 

“We’re not bad people. All we want is one chance,” he said.

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