Remain in Mexico: between uncertainty and exhaustion

Author: Nadia Romero Luna/ Photo Credit: IOM

Despite the promises, Joe Biden has not managed to eliminate this program by Trump, and although he has achieved some modifications, they still do not get migrants out of uncertainty.

Without any prior notice or explanation, Raúl suddenly found himself under the Quédate en México (Remain in Mexico) program in a city that he neither knew nor had any connection with and, as an irony of life, where he feels that his life runs more risk than in the one that forced him to leave from Colombia, his country of origin. Now, these days, his dreams depend on being able to contact a lawyer to take his case and obtain refuge in the United States.
Raúl left -practically fleeing- Colombia four months ago looking for a better life in the United States; not only for him, but for his entire family. Instead, he ended up stranded in a shelter in Tijuana with another 45 men who were also subjected to the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), inheritance from former President Donald Trump with support of the Mexican government. Joe Biden, despite claiming it as a campaign promise, has not managed to reverse this policy, although he has modified the strategy. A turn that has only increased the uncertainty for migrants like Raúl and hundreds of others in other shelters and border cities.
Four years later, the criticism for Biden has not been enough to take a step or find another solution. Trapped by the electoral dynamics in the United States, Biden and his administration have only made a few differences, for example, giving the green light to humanitarian permits that are sought by asylum-seekers with the support of some lawyers.
“The Migrant Protection Protocol program, which gives no protection at all, changed the entire migratory asylum policy in the United States and began to create certain problems for our border cities,” according to Enrique Lucero, municipal director of Attention to the Migrant in Tijuana. “There were up to 30,000 people in this program, also known as Remain in Mexico. They make life more difficult for migrants, with a longer process during which they wait for months to get an answer while they are in Tijuana or another border city. This generates stress, frustration, and uncertainty because migrants do not know what is going to happen and many have become desperate and have decided to return to their country of origin,” he added.
It is worth remembering that it is not the only means of the United States government since Title 42 also operates. This policy was born in the framework of the health crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which closed the ports of entry for asylum seekers under the argument that migrants could represent contagion risk.
These programs have generated strong complications in border cities, testing their capacity to assist migrants in terms of shelter, security, health, and legal matters. It has also been a challenge for Mexican citizens because some migrants have chosen to pursue their dreams in Mexico, although it is not the majority. For example, for Raúl it is not an option since he affirms that he does not have any acquaintances and it is a city in which he feels at risk; a perception that contrasts with the institutional discourse.
We are in Tijuana with a number of different situations: returnees under Title 42 or under Title 8 who have already lived in the US for some time; we see people from the MPP; we have the internally displaced persons from Michoacán or Guerrero; we see other forms of migration such as Russians, Ukrainians, Central Americans or Haitians. Countless contexts put us in a bottleneck situation. We are oblivious to the core of displacement and destiny because they are forced to leave their country due to violence, devastation, war, and climate change. On the other hand, the United States closes the door,” added the official, who recounts how the migration office that he directs initially focused on deportees under the Obama administration. Now, the tasks have been extended, but he affirms that they have managed to face the challenges.
Mexico has not granted Raúl any protection. He mentions that the experience he is living now, “he does not wish to anyone”. “This is the best test that my God has given me because it strengthens me. It is a mental drain, although neither I deny being here, the exhaustion is too much," he says. "We are in a migrant protection program, right? But we feel unprotected by Mexico and the United States," says Raúl, from his shelter, happy to be able to talk with someone, in the middle of an environment where the only certainty you have is that you can't trust anyone.
"I come from my country because I was a candidate for the municipal council. It turns out that the municipality where I am from was governed during 36 years by the same people. Six years ago someone from the countryside ran for mayor, we supported him and that year we lost the elections, but our candidate was second in the vote. He came back and asked me if I wanted to be part of the candidates for the council; I said yes. We won but that group was against us because they are the owners of everything. And then, I was going to apply for a job but they kept kicking me out, and they told me that if I didn't leave, who knows what options I would have and it scared me. I have two children and my wife and I want to protect them,” he says.
"Before proving why you need refuge, you have to prove that you are not a criminal"
However, when he arrived in Mexico to cross the border, reality took him by surprise: “I entered this program without knowing (by surrendering to Immigration, at the country's border). They call you randomly, they show you a video, they don't explain anything to you, they make you sign documents in English without knowing what you're signing (Raúl doesn't speak English), and what the officers tell you is not to ask questions, just sign. You are carried from one place to another without knowing where you are going. They brought me here, to Mexico, without knowing where I was being taken to. They brought us to Chaparral by force and the immigration authorities only told us: you are going to Mexico.”
This testimony, like those from other migrants, academics, and officials, shows how unclearly this program is developed, but above all, the great contradictions. Migrants are left to their means within a context of uncertainty, human rights are constantly violated, in a situation of defenselessness. “It's physical and mental exhaustion. This whole program is designed to make you tired and push you back to your country. Those who persevere pass through,” he says.
"They brought us to the most dangerous city," he narrates. During the months he has been here, he has already witnessed a series of various crimes: robberies by the National Guard and the state police, abuse by some informal employees. Besides this, he has heard about groups of organized crime that kidnap migrants and some of them has been murder. “In Mexico, we feel unprotected. Tijuana is in the first three places of the most violent cities in the world and they send us to the most dangerous place, supposedly to protect us”.
“A list of lawyers where no one answers you”
A little over a year after the entry into force of the Remain Mexico program, the scenario in Tijuana was complicated. Facing the health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the US government offered another program: Title 42, which also closed the ports of entry for asylum seekers, arguing that migrants could pose a risk of contagion. Both measures were widely questioned by the current President, Joe Biden, who promised during his campaign that he would end the "harmful asylum policies" of former President Trump. He described the Remain in Mexico program as "dangerous" and "inhumane." So far, the promise has not been realized.
First, President Biden and his administration managed a momentary setback for MPP and began allowing a limited number of asylum seekers into the country in 2021; but soon, he was forced to restart the program due to a federal court order. “The same thing happened with Title 42 since the United States justice considered that Biden's arguments were weak”, sayd Lucero .
So the Biden administration went back to the program, but promised to make some "improvements," for example, promising to resolve most asylum cases within six months, that applicants have access to a lawyer and prioritizing the most vulnerable people. The problem, according to experts, is that this proposal still does not resolve the needs of Migrants. Eduardo Piedra, an academic from COLEF (Colegio de la Frontera Norte), acknowledged that with Biden's new plan there have been "exceptions" for migrants who have managed to leave Tijuana and continue their process in the United States, as originally stipulated; however, he points out that it is an "arbitrary" and non-transparent process.
In theory, these cases -or "exceptions", as Piedra sayd, are related to humanitarian reasons, however, Eduardo Piedra said during the interview. They imply a discriminatory process. For example, greater support has been given to the displaced people from Ukraine, leaving aside the case of the people from Central America. “That is not a novelty, if we review history, this has always happened with asylum. The current system of human mobility is highly discriminatory" says Piedra.
In addition, this measure of accepting some cases has not been widely publicized in the media. “They have not wanted to make anything transparent, because it could be a convening factor that attracts more migrants. In reality they are crumbs, because they would have to return to the asylum system, but now the idea persists that if migration from Central America is for economic reasons, they should not be given an opportunity. The same thing happens in Africa, the poor should not move from their countries”, he claims.
Along the same lines, Lucero acknowledges that there has been a shift in the perspective of Central American migration to the United States. “Now the center of the arguments lies in the economic affectation that the migrants could generate since they speak of expenses in health, food, and other services. It is no longer a threat to security -as it was installed in the Trump era - but to the economy during the inflation crisis, and the shortage of breast milk formula. The atmosphere is also changing for the immigration issue, coupled with the possible return of Trump,” says the Mexican official.
In addition, these humanitarian permits have not meant an easier route for anyone. The cases in which they have been granted are due to the strong work carried out by civil organizations in Tijuana and the United States, providing legal support, advising asylum seekers, and bringing them closer to lawyers. The lists of cases to follow are numerous and the challenge of getting legal support is pharaonic. “Some lawyers have more than a thousand, and they look for these cases of extreme vulnerability that could apply to the humanitarian permit. Seventy cases are entering and leaving shelters daily to be pre-approved in the United States”, explains the official.
Raúl is one of the thousands of people listed on those lists, with the illusion - and the pressure that time is running out - that his case could be defended before the Court. But a couple of weeks away from his next hearing, he can't get a response from anyone, which fills him with uneasiness.
“They force you to have a lawyer with this program so they give you a list to get a lawyer but they never answer. You dial and dial for two, three, or four days and they never answer. I don't know why they give that number if they never answer. And sometimes lawyers have answered me and told me that they can´t help any longer because they have more than a hundred cases and they can no longer attend to me. So, why give a number that doesn't work? What's going on?” says Raúl. He affirms that he has not obtained support from any organization either. “They talk a lot, but they do little. In addition, when one needs to seek support from associations that are in the center, they recommend us to talk by phone, because of how risky it can be get out of the refuge, and some get tired of waiting," he adds.
For Raúl, there is nothing left but to trust that he will find legal support in time. There are days when he has thought about giving up, amid the sadness, loneliness, and the desire to reunite with his family, with the anguish of knowing that he is not financially supporting his home, that his family is hungry, but he affirms that his wife supports him and that inspires him to keep going. It is a hope that challenges the objective of Stay in Mexico, which is to discourage migration. The reality is that despite the implementation of these programs, migration has not stopped and has only endangered migrants and left them mistreated in both countries. (México and The United States)
For the experts, the hope of a change is distant due to some judges on the Court that were designated by Trump and there is also political pressure towards the elections in Congress. "For now, there are no signs that Biden is going to present a counterproposal. Perhaps we could see if he will show any action against the MPP again after November," both experts agree.
However, it is important to say that shortly after finishing writing this story, the Biden administration announced the end of the Stay in Mexico program. This august The Department of Homeland Security said they will no longer send asylum seekers back across the border to await a decision on their applications for U.S. protection.

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Nadia Romero Luna

Journalist with almost almost ten years of experience. I have written about economic issues and also about migration. I currently write for La Política Online and I have a Master Degree in Migration Studies. I’m convinced that this world needs more bridges and less walls.