The government's controversial "Remain in Mexico" program has officially begun in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector, the last major stretch of the southwestern border without the program, leaving aid groups in the area uncertain about their role in the changing landscape.
Yesterday, nine Venezuelans arrived at a Nogales port of entry, including three families, and were transferred to El Paso, Texas, before being removed to Mexico to "await the next steps," according to a Customs and Border Protection press release. They're the first known people arriving in the sector to be deported to Mexico through this process, officially known as Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.
Under the expansion, which was announced two weeks ago, people claiming asylum in the Tucson sector, which comprises a 262-mile strip along the border from New Mexico to the Yuma County line, will now be shuttled out of state to Texas and forced to wait out their claims in Mexico.
It's still unclear how aggressive the government will be in its implementation of the program in this strip of Arizona. In the meantime, aid organizations on the ground remain busy.
“At first, we thought that we would see a drop-off in the number of people that came to us,” said Dr. Richard Wahl, a pediatrics professor at the University of Arizona and volunteer at the Casa Alitas shelter, a Catholic Community Services program that assists asylum-seekers in Tucson. “And when Migrant Protection Protocols first started, we did have just a tiny trickle of arrivals. But this week, it’s starting up again.”
Casa Alitas is the largest permanent shelter in Tucson. Its staff members routinely take in asylum-seekers who have sponsors waiting for them somewhere in the United States. The shelter provides temporary aid after the migrants have been released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Border Patrol custody — equipping them with clothing, food, medical screenings, and transportation assistance before they continue on their journey.
That need became increasingly necessary as the number of families, rather than single adults, crossing the border into Arizona to claim refuge in the United States began to spike last year.
While the Tucson sector historically has apprehended fewer migrant families than the Yuma sector of the state, the number of families apprehended began to climb as MPP kicked off in other areas earlier this year. In October, Tucson was the only sector along the entire southwestern border that saw an increase in the number of families apprehended, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
But with the Trump administration’s announcement of MPP’s expansion to the Tucson sector ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, many aid groups expected the number of asylum-seeking families released to their area to plummet.
On November 22, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed that it would begin busing apprehended asylum seekers some 300 miles to El Paso, Texas. From there, migrants seeking refuge will undergo interviews to determine if they would be at risk in Mexico, and if not, will be deported back to the country, where they will live in makeshift shelters in the border city of Juárez while their asylum claims are considered.
Previously, asylum-seekers who arrived by way of this stretch of the southwestern border in Arizona were able to wait out their claims within the United States. Because of the risk of sending someone back to a situation where there was a potential for harm, this had been U.S. policy towards asylum-seekers, regardless of where they attempted to enter the country, since the 1950s.
But since the start of Remain in Mexico along parts of the southern border in January, much of that responsibility has been shuffled to Mexico, where an estimated 50,000 asylum-seekers waiting in border towns – none of which are along the Arizona border – have become an easy target for criminals.
The Trump administration's stated goal of the program is to deter migration, after the United States saw an unprecedented number of asylum-seeking families from Central America earlier this year.
Since its implementation in Tijuana, the Department of Homeland Security has expanded Remain in Mexico city by city, requiring more and more Central American asylum-seekers arriving at the border to go back to Mexico to await their court hearings in the U.S.
Many asylum-seekers and migrants have faced extreme levels of violence, with at least 636 reports of rape, kidnapping, and assault filed since MPP’s start earlier this year, according to a new report from Human Rights First released on December 5.
Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan has called reports of violence against the asylum-seekers "anecdotal," and previously stated that a U.S. delegation that visited the Mexican border cities deemed that "the safety was okay."
Organizations who provide aid to asylum-seekers in Tucson and at the border said they prepared for this policy’s expansion to their sector with uncertainty: Would they stop seeing arrivals entirely?
Like many immigration policies implemented under the Trump administration, this one hasn’t been straightforward.
Doctors at Casa Alitas said this week they continue to receive about 60 to 90 asylum-seekers from immigration enforcement each day — but the population is different.
“It’s too soon to tell if it’s connected to MPP, but we’re seeing a lot more young, pregnant women, and more sickly, elderly people,” said Dr. Tim Domer, a geriatrician who volunteers with the organization. “Before, it was a lot more families.”
Several speculated that these may be individuals who the Border Patrol perceives as too vulnerable to send to Mexico, but said they haven’t received any information about the change.
“What’s going on under the surface I’m completely blind to,” Wahl said. “What I do know is that the people who come through continue to be the most traumatized, and also the most grateful, population I’ve ever worked with. And the stated goal of MPP is to cut that [migration] off.”
Other migrant legal aid groups like The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, and the Keep Tucson Together working group (which is part of the aid group No More Deaths), said they’re waiting for the fallout from MPP as well.
“So far, we’re not hearing reports of massive numbers of people being sent to Juárez via El Paso," said Alexandra Miller, an attorney with The Florence Project. “The holiday could have slowed things down, but it’s still a bit of a black box on how it’s going to impact asylum-seekers in our area.”
“They still seem to be letting people through the port of entry in Nogales,” said Peter Hirschman, asylum team lead for Keep Tucson Together. “This may be because the DHS only has the capacity to bus 100 people a day from Nogales to El Paso. There are some 5,000 people waiting in line in Nogales – in some ways, MPP is so far a drop in the bucket here.”
But on the other side of the border, the impact of the announcement of MPP expanding to the rest of the Arizona-Mexico sector is already evident, according to aid workers.
“The day the decision came down, people were just in despair,” said Katie Sharar, director of communications at Kino Border Initiative, which provides food, shelter, and other services to migrants along the border between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora. “Some of these people have already been waiting three months in Nogales, Mexico, to enter the United States under Trump’s metering policy. And now they might be going to Juárez."
“There’s just a lot of confusion," she continued. "It’s very disempowering to not know exactly what’s going to happen.”
Both Sharar and Miller of the Florence Project said their primary concerns for asylum-seekers who will be moved from Nogales to Juárez center around their ability to receive needed services.
“With MPP being rolled out the way they’re promising, they’re taking people away from nonprofit, free services that they would have had access to had they been removed to Nogales, rather than a completely new jurisdiction,” Miller said. “Not that we think they should be removed at all – the Remain in Mexico policy limits migrants’ access to counsel, and their ability to actively pursue asylum claims to the United States. But at the very least, if they were sent back to Nogales, the way they came, they know where service providers are.”
Juárez, the city where Tucson sector asylum-seekers will end up, has received more than 15,000 migrants, the most of any Mexican border city or town under the policy.
“Juárez is already inundated with folks that are returned under MPP,” said Miller. “If you’ve already got 15,000 migrants vying for limited legal and social services, sending more people there makes it even more difficult.”
To respond to the anticipated changes, The Florence Project and Kino Border Initiative are working together more than ever, according to Miller.
Attorneys from the Florence Project in Tucson are increasing their rate of visits to provide legal advice to migrants in Nogales, Mexico, from one to two times a week. These visits help migrants understand the U.S. asylum application, provide translation of court documents, which are usually in English, and accrue evidence of their claims. The early intervention aids asylum-seekers in preparing for their asylum hearings early on, regardless of whether they’ll be sent to Juárez, stay in Nogales, or wait out their claim in the United States with a sponsor.
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“We also try to track folks as they approach the border, so we can know what happens to them next, and provide further assistance if needed,” Miller said. “And we’re trying to build up resources with nonprofits in El Paso.”
The organization plans to expand services even further if Nogales becomes a designated resettlement city under Remain in Mexico.
In the meantime, aid groups in Tucson are continuing the work they’ve done for years, despite uncertainty.
“I see my grandparents coming in through Ellis Island nonstop in this population – I can’t imagine if there’d been a Migrant Protection Program there,” Wahl said. “But we still don’t know if we’re going to have a permanent need for this place.”