“We feel safe”: As Biden administration ends the Migrant Protection Protocols, asylum seekers included in the wind down experience security, stability, and joy in new lives in the United States
In February 2021, the Biden administration – following through on its campaign promises – announced an end to the Trump administration’s so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and formally ended the policy last week. Between January 2019 and January 2021, the U.S. government forcibly returned over 70,000 asylum seekers and migrants to extremely dangerous Mexican border regions under MPP, where they were told to wait for U.S. immigration court proceedings in danger, often for years. Currently, individuals and families with open MPP cases are being processed out of the program and allowed to enter the United States to continue their requests for protection, living with families and communities throughout the country in safety and dignity.
Tragically, however, the wind-down of MPP has not moved swiftly enough to save the lives of all those subjected to this cruel and illegal policy. In May 2021, a 19-year-old Cuban asylum seeker was murdered in Ciudad Juárez just days before he was to be processed out of MPP and brought to safety in the United States.
In addition, thousands of asylum seekers with unfairly denied or closed MPP cases are still “await[ing] further instructions” from the administration on when they will be brought to safety. Even as the Biden administration has moved to end MPP, it has continued to use Title 42 public health authority to block and expel asylum seekers at the southern border citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext.
But for the more than 10,700 asylum seekers to date, the end of MPP has seen them reunited with family and friends in communities throughout the United States to wait in safety while their asylum cases proceed. These families and individuals register with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which arranges for asylum seekers in the MPP wind down to be tested for COVID-19 and accompanied to U.S. ports of entry. There, asylum seekers are quickly issued immigration court documents and released to awaiting non-profit organizations that help arrange travel to family and friends throughout the United States as they wait for their cases to be decided.
The families and individuals processed out of MPP include several Human Rights First clients, who are now living in Texas, Wisconsin, and Virginia. For the first time in years of terror in MPP, they can say, “We feel safe.”
Among those recently brought to safety out of MPP are Juan, his wife, and their five-year-old daughter who fled political persecution and torture by government agents in Venezuela and spent more than a year and a half in danger in Mexico under MPP. In April 2021, the family was finally able to reunite with Juan’s sister, whom he had not seen in four years, in a small town outside of Houston, Texas. Juan told us: “I cried with happiness when I was finally able to hug [my sister] after so much time apart.”
Juan and his family were returned to Mexico under MPP to the extremely dangerous city of Nuevo Laredo in September 2019. The U.S. State Department considers that region of Mexico a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” security threat – the same danger level applied to warzones like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Indeed, while the family was traveling by bus to the U.S. border to request asylum, men grabbed their then-four-year-old daughter and tried to kidnap her, as Juan and his wife begged them to return her. When Juan and his family had to return to Nuevo Laredo to attend their MPP hearing in U.S. immigration court months later, they were again nearly kidnapped. Afraid to send their daughter alone to school in Mexico, she missed more than a year of classes because of MPP.
Sadly, Juan’s experiences of fear, violence, and kidnapping in MPP are by no means exceptional. Human Rights First has tracked at least 1,544 public reports of violent attacks against people returned under MPP, including kidnapping, rape, murder, and assault.
Juan describes his life now in the United States as a “change that is 100 percent for the better. We feel safe because we can leave our house without fear of being kidnapped or robbed. My wife is much calmer now and our daughter is so happy. Houston is a beautiful city, and there are a lot of parks where my wife and I take our daughter. People are very friendly and whenever we go somewhere and explain that we don’t speak English, they are kind to us and find someone to speak Spanish with us.” Juan and his wife are happy and relieved that their daughter can finally go back to school and be safe. Juan told Human Rights First: “Every day, she learns something new. She is very excited and loves her teachers.”
Rosa and her husband, Venezuelan asylum seekers who fled their country after Venezuelan security forces tear-gassed and kidnapped them for their political opposition work, faced similar violence in Mexico. In Tijuana, they were robbed at gunpoint and, on another occasion, they were traveling home in a city bus when a car attempted to run the bus off the road.
Now safe in the United States, Rosa and her husband are living in Wisconsin with Rosa’s cousin and brother, both of whom have already been granted asylum. Rosa said: “We feel completely different from how we felt in Mexico. My husband and I are no longer all alone in a dangerous place. The United States is safe, which is very different from what we’re used to.” In the past few months, Rosa and her husband have spent time with family, visited Milwaukee and Chicago, gone bowling, and attended basketball and baseball games. Rosa said that “it is wonderful to share these experiences with our family. Chicago is beautiful—we’ve gotten to see places where they filmed many movies that we’ve seen. We like how peaceful Milwaukee is—very cold, but pretty and peaceful.”
Delmy, a community leader in Honduras who escaped death threats for her opposition to gangs, and her 13-year-old son, survived kidnapping, rape, threats, and stalking during their year and a half in MPP, much of which they spent in the tent encampment in Matamoros. While trapped in Mexico, Delmy was raped and beaten by a man who threatened that if she told anyone of the attack, her son would pay the price. A gang member also later threatened and stalked her. Because of MPP, Delmy believed she would never experience happiness again.
Now, Delmy and her son are staying with family members in Virginia. She told me, “We are no longer thinking to ourselves, when will something happen to us? When will we be kidnapped? When will we be killed? We are no longer looking around in fear, looking over our shoulders. Here, we fear nothing—absolutely nothing. We can walk around in the streets, and nothing happens to us. The danger we faced in Honduras, as well as in Mexico, it’s over.”
Delmy recalls that in Mexico, her son hid inside the tent at all times because he was terrified to go outside and be kidnapped or attacked. She remembers that “he couldn’t study, he couldn’t leave, he couldn’t speak with anyone.” In Virginia, he can safely walk to and from school. “He is able to sleep at night. He is able to spend time outside without fear.” After two years of being unable to attend school while the family was fleeing Honduras and stranded in MPP, Delmy’s son “really likes 7th grade,” according to Delmy. “He’s already made friends here. He goes to school and then to the gym in the afternoons.”
Despite the security Juan, Rosa, Delmy, and their families have found in their new lives in the United States, they have not yet received asylum, and potentially face years of immigration proceedings and work authorization renewals before they can truly feel at home in the United States. Juan is waiting for the government to approve his request for work authorization, after which he would like to work in automotive electricity as he did in Venezuela. He hopes to fulfill his daughter’s dream of visiting Disney World, and is excited to visit New York and Washington D.C. someday to see the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, and the Lincoln Memorial. Rosa studied veterinary medicine and business administration, and would love to work with animals or find work that allows her to use her business degree. Her husband, who is a barber, hopes to open his own barbershop. Delmy is looking forward to having her work authorization approved and says that it will enable her to “work hard and give my son a normal life. I would like to work as an assistant in a nursing home to take care of old people.” Delmy has been enjoying visiting different U.S. cities with her son. “All this is a dream to us. It’s like another world. My son and I visited New York and Washington D.C recently. We went to Houston as well to spend time at the beach. In New York, we were amazed by all the buildings.”
For now, these families are grateful to be safe, and look forward to building new lives in safety. Now that his family is in the United States, Juan says: “We feel safe, and I know that here we will be able to finally forget all the bad things that have happened to us.” When reflecting on the past two years and the future of their case, Rosa said: “We are waiting for our court date and hope we will be granted asylum. MPP was a very unkind, very harsh program. I am so thankful to God that we are now safe in the United States and that MPP is no more.”
A Path to Safety
Under the Biden administration’s wind-down of MPP, the U.S. government was able to rapidly process Juan, Rosa, Delmy and their families, issuing them parole documents at U.S. ports of entry, and releasing them to wait with their families while their immigration court processes continue.
Juan described entering the United States as a “straightforward process” that made him feel respected. In Tijuana, UNHCR brought the family to a center where they administered COVID-19 tests and, once they had tested negative, accompanied them to the San Ysidro port of entry. In California, U.S. officials “treated us very differently than they had in the past; they were polite and respectful,” according to Juan. The family received a second COVID-19 test and then was transported to a motel to quarantine for a few days while they waited for their test results. At the end of their quarantine, a nonprofit organization helped them arrange plane tickets to Houston, their final destination.
Rosa and her husband were also paroled into the United States after registering with UNHCR and receiving a date and time to present themselves at the designated processing location in Tijuana where they received a COVID-19 test. Rosa described it as a “very organized process.” After four days of quarantine in a motel in San Diego, the couple received a second negative COVID-19 test result and were able to buy plane tickets to their destination in Wisconsin.
Delmy said the moment UNHCR called her and her son with a date and time to be processed out of MPP and into the United States in March 2021 “was the happiest moment of our lives.” UNHCR took Delmy and her son to a processing site for COVID-19 tests, to review their identity documents, and to administer some simple screening questions. A bus took them to a U.S. port of entry, where U.S. officials quickly gave them their parole documents and asked a few questions about their final destination and where they would stay for the night. A nonprofit organization organized for Delmy and her son to have a motel room and food before their flights to Virginia, where Delmy’s niece picked them up at the airport.
Yet even as the MPP wind down has proceeded, the government has left many refugees stranded in danger in Mexico. The Biden administration has not yet extended a path to safety to thousands of asylum seekers who were unfairly ordered removed or had their case terminated because of procedural errors by the government in MPP proceedings that were plagued by systemic due process violations and conducted under illegal Trump administration rules, including the now-enjoined third-country transit ban.
Countless more have been ordered removed in absentia because they were kidnapped, fearful of travel, in CBP custody, or could not afford transportation to a port of entry. The Biden administration also continues to implement the Trump administration’s Title 42 policy barring entry to asylum seekers under specious public health rationales, claiming the government cannot provide any humanitarian protections due to the pandemic.
As the stories of Human Rights First’s clients and thousands of others formerly in MPP demonstrate, when the government allows refugees to be processed into the United States to seek protection, our organizations and communities are ready to work with the government to welcome them safely and humanely. The Biden administration should immediately restore asylum protections at the border and use processes similar to those used to end MPP to bring other asylum seekers returned, blocked, transferred, or expelled to Mexico and other countries of persecution to safety in the United States.