With the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols program, or MPP, expanding along the southern border and trapping more U.S. asylum-seekers in dangerous Mexican cities, violations of due process are intensifying in traditional courts — and in newly built tents that physically separate immigrants from the judges who hear their cases.
Stephanie Rodriguez of Fort Worth, Texas, is intimately acquainted with these violations because they’ve harmed several of her loved ones.
White and U.S.-born, Rodriguez got her surname several years ago when she married a Honduran who is now a legal permanent U.S. resident. This past year, she has watched as several members of her extended family have tried to immigrate to the U.S., only to be discouraged by government practices that are reflected in the legal papers given to them. Rodriguez has shared the documents with The Intercept.
Under MPP, U.S. officials send asylum-seekers back into Mexico instead of allowing them to stay in the U.S. while they develop their claims. Almost 50,000 people have been put into the program since early this year, and the number is expected to double in the next several months. “We’re getting more integrity into the system to deter those who don’t have valid claims from making the journey,” Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan said recently.
But an unknown number of people in MPP do have valid cases, yet are being discouraged from pursuing asylum, and they are being pressured to return to the dangers that they fled. Baja California’s federal delegate has said that about half the Central American migrants who’ve been returned to Tijuana and Mexicali have decided to go back to their home countries.
One of Rodriguez’s relatives worked in the government of a city in Honduras that has lately been rocked by political protest marches. Earlier this year, the man told The Intercept, protesters sacked his father’s house and then said they were coming for him. He filed a complaint, but the police offered no protection. So he fled with his wife and infant daughter in June. They crossed the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas, called relatives to say they were safe, and immediately turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents.
Then they disappeared. Days passed, and no one in Honduras heard from them. In Fort Worth, neither did Rodriguez. After several days, the family turned up 1,500 miles away in San Diego, where they were flown by Customs and Border Protection. Then, under the auspices of the MPP, they were dumped into Tijuana.
This happened in early July, when MPP was not operating systematically in South Texas but was well established in California. Immigration rights advocates told The Intercept that they’ve heard of immigrants being transferred from Arizona to California for MPP, but not from as far away as South Texas. The family told The Intercept that they had experienced a mass transfer, with more than 200 immigrants on the plane with them.
The family was given legal documents called “notices to appear,” or NTAs, instructing them to show up in seven weeks at a court hearing in San Diego. Such documents are legally required to list an immigrant’s physical address so that an immigration court can send notifications as the case progresses. But the family’s NTAs list their address as “Facebook.”
Listing an internet platform as an address was perhaps an acknowledgment of where the family’s real address would be once they got to Tijuana: the street. Shelters in that city were full when they arrived, and so the father, mother, and 2-year-old immediately became homeless. They had no money or food, and the little girl got sick. At the end of their rope, the parents asked relatives for bus fare to leave Mexico. When their MPP court date came up in late August, they missed it because they were back in Honduras.
Two more of Rodriguez’s cousins, a man and his 6-year-old son, left Honduras this summer, ended up enrolled in MPP, and were kicked back across the border to the Mexican city Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas. The State Department advises Americans against traveling to Nuevo Laredo, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, because it is considered very dangerous. The area is even riskier for migrants. The media has reported several instances of asylum-seekers seized from buses and kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo.
When the man’s wife, who was still in Honduras, found out that her husband and child were in Nuevo Laredo, she called Rodriguez, crying and begging for help. Rodriguez drove hundreds of miles south from Fort Worth to find her cousins.
In Laredo, she made her way to a Border Patrol station. “I’m concerned about my family maybe being dropped off on the street in Nuevo Laredo,” she told an officer. He was tall and friendly. “I’m telling you what I would tell my daughters,” Rodriguez remembered the agent saying. “Do not go there.” Terrified, Rodriguez steered her car into Nuevo Laredo and found her cousins in a Mexican government office, quaking with fear. She bought them plane and bus tickets back to Honduras. They abandoned their asylum claim.
After they left, Rodriguez looked at their NTAs. “350 Francisco Madero Street,” the address said, in Spanish. That is the location of a shelter in Nuevo Laredo. The father and child knew nothing about the place and had never been there.
A third family related to Rodriguez is from San Pedro Sula, the most violent city in Honduras and one of the 50 most violent cities in the world. The family, including a teenaged son, owned a clothing store there but were being extorted by the MS-13 gang. The gang was demanding $40 per week — almost half the family’s net earnings — and said that if they didn’t pay, they would be killed. MS-13 also wanted to recruit the boy, a middle school student.
The father filed a police complaint, and the family fled the country. They reached the U.S. in late August. According to CBP rules, they were supposed to be asked if they feared going back to their country. But the agents “never gave me a chance,” the father said.
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to questions for this article.
The family was given an MPP court date for late November, then taken to Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. Matamoros is also on the State Department’s travel advisory list, yet the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley chief recently said that the agency is sending more than 1,000 migrants a week to the area.
The family’s NTAs lists their address as 43 Golfo de Mexico Street. That’s the address of an overcrowded shelter that has only 50 beds. The family has never been there.
Instead, they are now living in a chaotic tent encampment at the foot of an international bridge that connects to Brownsville. They’ve been there for weeks. Their tent has no sleeping pads, pillows, blankets, or sheets. They are sick, hungry, and — like the vast majority of MPP enrollees — they have no lawyer. Buses subsidized by the U.S. and a United Nations migration agency pull out of the tent camp several times a week, offering free trips back to Central America for migrants who have given up on applying for asylum. Hundreds climb aboard.
Eventually, this family may find themselves in another tent. In September, immigration hearings for people in MPP in Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros were moved from traditional brick-and-mortar courts in San Antonio and Harlingen to what the government officially calls “soft-sided facilities” in Texas border towns Laredo and Brownsville. (“Whoever came up with that expression probably got a bonus!” a DOJ spokesman recently told me.) In reality, the “facilities” are huge tents. No judges sit in them. They hear cases by television hookup in Harlingen, San Antonio, and El Paso. Reporters and community observers are banned from the tents but may attend hearings in the out-of-town judges’ courts.
At a recent MPP hearing in a Brownsville tent, which The Intercept observed on a TV hookup 800 miles away in El Paso, the Brownsville room had rows of small chairs visible in the background and two spindly tables with cheap matching chairs in the foreground. Six people were listed on the docket; none showed up. The judge for their cases, William Abbott, sat in a black robe in his traditional courtroom in El Paso, which is furnished with wood benches and a bronze statue of an exhausted Native American slumped on a horse. Gabriela Contreras, the government’s lawyer in El Paso, asked Abbott to order deportation of all six immigrants “in absentia.”
Abbott tabled his decision. He was troubled that the NTAs incorrectly listed the hearing location as a brick-and-mortar court in Harlingen, yet the actual site was the tent in Brownsville. Might this have caused confusion among the immigrants about where to show up? El Paso immigration lawyer Taylor Levy was sitting in Abbott’s court as an observer. She is a seasoned attorney for people in MPP, and Abbott asked her to submit an amicus brief to help him make his rulings.
Taylor’s brief discussed problems in NTAs issued borderwide for MPP enrollees: not just incorrect locations for their court hearings, but also wrong or absurd addresses, such as Facebook, for them to receive legal mail in Mexico.
In California immigration courts, these problems are being taken seriously. According to data current as of the end of August, when immigrants in MPP failed to arrive in court, judges in San Diego and Calexico were being asked by the government to deport them in absentia — a ruling that can ban people from ever seeking asylum again. Instead, judges were often responding by terminating the cases. As reported by the Los Angeles Times in August, San Diego Judge Lee O’Connor ruled at a hearing that if the government intended to carry out MPP, “it must ensure due process is strictly complied with and statutory requirements are strictly adhered to. That has not been shown in any of these cases.”
But these issues are being ignored in Texas. So far in that state, statistics about the outcome of MPP cases exist only for El Paso. There, it is almost unheard of for judges to terminate cases.
Levy filed her amicus brief but it apparently did not sway Abbott. On Monday in his El Paso court, a government lawyer moved that nine people be deported because they hadn’t shown up that morning to the tent in Brownsville. Abbott immediately concurred.
Abbott may well end up seeing Stephanie Rodriguez’s cousins, the family from San Pedro Sula, via TV hookup; their hearing is scheduled for late November. Meanwhile, they live in a donated tent, minus clean bathrooms or running water. They and hundreds of other asylum-seekers are forced to relieve themselves and bathe in the Rio Grande, where the banks are littered with toilet paper and homemade crosses.
A pair of those crosses commemorate Idalia Herrera, a young Honduran mother, and her 1-year-old son, Iker. They were MPP enrollees who drowned last month while attempting to cross the river. Two other markers honor Oscar Alberto Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria. They drowned in June, with Valeria wrapped in her father’s shirt. A photo of their corpses, washed up on the riverbank where people now bathe, went viral worldwide. In the same area of the river two weeks ago, immigrants found a decomposed body missing its head, arms, and legs.
Speaking by phone from Fort Worth, Rodriguez said her cousins are being treated by the U.S. “like animals.” From Matamoros, her relatives say they have no choice. Two days after MPP dumped them into Mexico, a 20-year-old cousin still in Honduras was shot to death while sitting outside his home with friends. Prior to the shooting, he had spoken about needing to escape the violence. He was murdered five houses from where the family lived.
“We can’t go back,” one of the relatives said. “We have to stay here no matter what.”
Correction: October 4, 2019
A previous version of this article stated that about half the migrants who have been returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols have returned to their home countries. In fact, the federal delegate in Baja California stated that about half the migrants released under MPP in Tijuana and Mexicali have returned to their home countries.