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‘Return to Mexico’ program continues despite coronavirus pandemic

Pedro Rios  |  Issue: May | June 2020

As the state of California issues a stay-at-home order in an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and as the federal government places greater restrictions on border crossings, immigration courts continue to handle the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) despite the risk to migrants, immigration court workers and other government officials.

In at least three cities – Denver, Boston, and Atlanta – immigration attorneys and personnel have been quarantined for possible exposure to the coronavirus.

Since January 2019, the U.S. government’s “Return to Mexico” program has placed more than 60,000 asylum seekers into the MPP which forces them to wait in Mexico for their court hearings. To attend court in the United States, migrants must arrive at 4 a.m., four hours before their court appearance, to be processed at the designated ports of entry.


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Sanctuary Cities


In California, processing of migrants under MPP takes place at the San Ysidro Port-of-Entry. Migrants are bused in from the border to downtown San Diego, where they wait in rooms, often with their children, in confined spaces. There is no place to maintain the recommended separation to avoid unnecessary human contact or possible spread of the coronavirus.

The MPP program has become a fundamental part of the Trump administration’s efforts to gut the U.S. asylum system. In contradiction of longstanding U.S. and international refugee law and practice, the MPP violates non-refoulement principles that are meant to prevent endangering the lives of migrants. (Under international human rights law, the principle of non-refoulement guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm. This principle applies to all migrants at all times, irrespective of migration status. Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

When forced to wait in Mexico, migrants often do not have a fixed address, and most do not have access to an attorney. Many become frustrated and disillusioned with the process, having to wait in suspense for months at a time under dangerous conditions.

In a recent report by the American Friends Service Committee, court observations found that migrants who expressed fear of returning to Mexico were still returned there anyway. Some migrants experienced denigrating treatment while at the court proceedings, and others were completely confused about the proceedings themselves.

In early March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit blocked MPP, allowing migrants to present themselves at ports of entry and to be admitted to the United States to pursue their asylum claims, rather than being forced to stay in Mexico. It then delayed implementing the block on the policy for a week to give the U.S. Supreme Court time to intervene. The high court has since allowed MPP to continue while it considers taking up the case in the near future.


Pedro Rios, Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program.

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