On one Wednesday earlier this month, 56 asylum-seekers were scheduled to have their first hearing by videoconference in a makeshift tent court in Laredo, Texas. Only 16 arrived, and 30 of the ones who didn’t show were ordered deported in absentia by a judge presiding over the hearing from San Antonio.
The previous day, less than half of the people scheduled for a hearing in the same tent court showed up. All the no-shows were ordered deported, according to Amnesty International.
The asylum-seekers who came had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in order to make their court date. Thanks to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) policy, which began in late January, they had been forced to live in Mexico while their claims were processed. Many stay in shelters in Laredo’s Mexican sister city of Nuevo Laredo, which is rife with crime and kidnappings.
While the Trump administration introduced MPP with the stated goal of preventing people from skipping hearings and living in the country undocumented, data shows that the policy, better known as Remain in Mexico, is actually preventing people from making their court dates. Migrants applying for asylum from Mexico are missing hearings at a significantly higher rate than asylum-seekers allowed to stay in the U.S. — and in most cases that means the end of their claim.
“I was thinking, ‘The government should be sending out a search-and-rescue mission for these people,’” said Charanya Krishnaswami, the advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA, who observed the San Antonio hearings. “Instead, they’re moving to have them removed from the United States.”
39% of migrants forced to stay in Mexico while they apply for asylum have missed a court date, according to immigration court data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Meanwhile, only 20% of newly arrived, non-detained asylum-seeking families allowed to pursue their claims in the U.S. missed a hearing between September 2018 and May 2019, according to an analysis by the same group. (Unlike the MPP data, this group of people includes asylum-seekers from countries outside Latin America, including a growing number of African and Caribbean migrants.)
Some migrants forced to wait in Mexico are missing hearings because of clerical errors: Hearing notices have had the wrong address on them, and sometimes they’re given contradictory instructions about where to show up before their hearings. Sometimes they simply miss the bus or can’t catch or afford a cab. One immigration lawyer said Ubers and other for-hire vehicles refuse to go to the Juarez shelter where her clients are staying because it’s too dangerous.
“The government should be sending out a search-and-rescue mission for these people.”
But the danger of Mexico’s border cities, where Central American migrants are often kidnapped by cartels and held for ransom, is also a major factor.
Migrants whose hearings are scheduled at 7:30 a.m. are instructed to show up at ports of entry three hours earlier, several immigration attorneys said.
“That’s hard, even under the best conditions, especially at 4 a.m.” said Kara Lynum, a Minnesota immigration lawyer representing a client in Juarez. “You're telling me the cartels aren't watching that port of entry at 4 o’clock in the morning? That's ridiculous.”
Many migrants are afraid to make the short trip from shelters to a port of entry as the routes are heavily guarded by cartels; VICE News recently interviewed a migrant who was kidnapped five hours after being returned to Mexico.
Christina Brown, a Colorado-based immigration lawyer representing a handful of migrants forced to wait out their asylum cases in Mexico, told VICE News one of her clients was also kidnapped shortly after arriving in Juarez and had her immigration paperwork taken by her kidnapper.
“She has a court date coming up, and the person who kidnapped her knows when it is,” Brown said. “She's so afraid to even present at the port of entry because they have her information. She's terrified that they will be there waiting for her at the port of entry when she goes and that she won't make it to court.”
DHS and the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency that oversees the nation’s immigration courts, didn’t respond to VICE News' request for comment.
As the months wear on, the logistics of waiting in Mexico to apply for asylum in the U.S. are getting worse.
In order to keep migrants safer and relieve overflowing shelters in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican government began busing migrants to Monterrey, a city 130 miles and a two-hour drive from the border, in July.
And once they arrive at the port of entry for their hearings, there’s no telling how long they’ll be required to wait by Customs and Border Protection. In one instance, border agents didn’t escort a Nicaraguan asylum-seeker to her 7:30 a.m. hearing until after 9 a.m., Reuters reported on Sept. 10.
Kate Clark, the director of Jewish Family Service of San Diego, an organization that is representing two dozen migrants on the MPP docket, said, “We accompany all our clients [across the border] as a matter of practice because we’ve experienced so many issues.” But those migrants are outliers; just 1.5% of all asylum-seekers forced to wait in Mexico have legal representation, according to federal data analyzed by TRAC.
For those who don’t — or can’t — show up for a hearing, the prospects are grim. Under normal circumstances, judges are supposed to terminate the cases of migrants who don’t show up for their hearings.
At the Wednesday, Sept. 18 hearing, Judge Margaret Burkhart suggested she and other immigration judges had been instructed to order no-shows deported in absentia, regardless of extenuating circumstances, according to Krishnaswami. The Executive Office for Immigration Review did not reply to a request for comment on this claim.
Asylum-seekers have the right to appeal deportation orders, but few have lawyers.
Ashley Tabaddor, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said many of her colleagues are now unsure about what to do when masses of people cannot get to their court date.
“Even in cases when the person doesn't appear physically back for their hearing, there are some questions about, ‘Should the case be terminated? Should it go forward in absentia?’” said Tabaddor. “There's a lot of new issues that the judges have had to grapple with.”
Despite these issues, the Trump administration seems to have doubled down on the Remain in Mexico policy. During a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday, DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan said most migrant families who express a fear of being sent back to their country would be placed into the program.
Meanwhile, even some of those who manage to make it to their hearings are losing faith that they’ll ever get a fair day in court.
Most people who’ve applied for asylum under the MPP program are still waiting for their first hearing — and only three migrants are known to have been granted asylum since the program began in late January.
Cover: Migrants, most of who are asylum-seekers that have been sent back to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, wait in line to get a meal on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, in an encampment near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. AP Photo/Veronica G. Cardenas)