In Juárez, 'Remain In Mexico' Policy Casts Asylum-Seekers Back Into Uncertainty

Jul 10, 2019
Originally published on July 17, 2019 8:52 am

For thousands of migrants, their journey to the United States has been derailed in northern Mexico border cities under a U.S. program called Migrant Protection Protocols. With shelters overflowing and work unavailable, they create a home wherever they can.

A mother and son — Grisélida, 44, and Julio, 12 — were sent back from El Paso to Juárez, Mexico, on Sunday. When they were turned away from Juárez's largest shelter, they wandered around until they found a hotel near the downtown plaza that would allow them to sleep on a twin mattress on the basement floor for $4 a night. (NPR is not using migrants' last names in this story because these are people who are in the middle of immigration proceedings.)

Sharing a hot hotel basement in Juárez with 15 to 20 other migrants isn't what Grisélida or Julio imagined when they decided to leave Honduras. They fled because gangs were trying to recruit Julio.

"We had heard that if you came with your family or brought a small child, you could [enter the United States], so that made me hopeful. But then when we arrived, they said 'no more,' " Julio tells Morning Edition host Noel King. "They didn't even ask us anything. They just sent us back. They didn't tell us anything. I don't know what to do."

Julio, 12, with his mother Grisélida, 44, crossed into the U.S. seeking asylum, but they were returned to Mexico. The shelter they tried to go to was full, so they are staying in a hotel basement. They fled their home in Honduras when a gang began recruiting Julio.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Since April, the U.S. government has sent more than 8,000 migrants from El Paso to Juárez to wait as their cases are decided by U.S. immigration courts.

The U.S. government calls the program Migrant Protection Protocols, but it's commonly known as "remain in Mexico." It means that if you cross the border into the U.S. seeking asylum, you may have to wait to get a hearing in court. In the past, you could wait in the United States, but under this new policy, since January some have been told they must wait in Mexico instead. A federal judge in San Francisco halted the program in April, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted that injunction a month later and allowed the program to continue while court challenges proceed.

The lawsuit alleges that Migrant Protection Protocols denies migrants their due process rights. The vast majority of people in MPP so far have not had attorneys. In El Paso, a handful of attorneys for nonprofit organizations perform a regular triage to identify people with the best asylum claims or the greatest vulnerability in Mexico. Only a handful of private immigration attorneys in El Paso will take on MPP cases because of the challenges of building a case for clients who are difficult to contact.

Under threat by President Trump to start levying tariffs on goods exported to the U.S. from Mexico, the Mexican government agreed in June to allow for the expansion of MPP to other border communities. U.S. officials have said Yuma, Ariz., and Laredo and Brownsville in Texas are being studied as the next locations for MPP, though no timeline has been announced.

Mattresses line the floor of a hotel basement in Juárez, where migrants are waiting to enter the U.S. Many crossed the border and were then returned to Mexico as part of the "remain in Mexico" policy.
Claire Harbage / NPR

The migrants are being sent to northern Mexico cities wracked by drug violence. Juárez has averaged five murders a day since MPP started there in April. In immigration court in El Paso, migrants have spoken frequently of being sexually assaulted, kidnapped, robbed and attacked while in Mexico. Reuters has reported that only about 1% of people returned to Mexico have later been allowed stay in the U.S. to pursue their asylum claims.

Grisélida holds a plastic bag of documents from U.S. immigration authorities. One of them includes details about her court date in El Paso. The documents are written in English, a language she does not read.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Juárez is home to the largest number of migrants sent back from the U.S. and is struggling to care for them. Most of the migrants sent back are from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The numbers have far outpaced Juárez's shelter capacity, forcing people to turn to hotels, rooms in homes and sometimes the street.

In the hotel basement, Grisélida mentions that her first court date in El Paso is Aug. 20. One woman nearby says, "I've been in Juárez, in this basement, longer than Grisélida. Why is my date later?" That sort of confusion, of randomness, has been a hallmark of Migrant Protection Protocols since it began. U.S. officials won't even say how it decides which people are chosen to be sent back to Mexico, and which are allowed to stay in the U.S.

The hotel basement with a bare floor is crowded with about two dozen people and more than a dozen mattresses. Also staying there are Gilmer, 23; his wife, Glendi, 21; and their 3-year-old daughter. The Guatemalan couple say they came north to make a better life for their daughter.

They say they've seen other people leave the hotel basement to head back to their home countries. They vow to continue their efforts to come to the United States.

Gilmer, 23, and Glendi, 21, sit on stairs in the hotel basement with their 3-year-old daughter. They left Guatemala seeking a better life for their daughter, but have been staying in the basement for two months. They have seen others give up and return to their home countries, but they are determined to stay and hope to eventually make it into the U.S.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"We have a court date of Oct. 28," Gilmer says. How they'll cope in Juárez for the next few months isn't clear.

On Monday, Mexican officials announced a "Juárez initiative" that seeks to process migrants more quickly when they're sent back from the United States. Migrants will get work permits as part of the processing, which would address one of the biggest frustrations of people sent back from the U.S., who until now have largely lacked the legal right to work in Mexico.

One man staying in the hotel basement holds out his number in line for entering the U.S. One Mexican official said about 100 numbers are called every day, depending on capacity.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Juárez's largest employer is the maquiladora industry, manufacturing facilities set up by multinational companies. The industry's trade association in Juárez said the manufacturing plants currently have 5,000 vacancies.

The initiative doesn't appear to address one of the major concerns raised by migrants and human rights groups — the violence faced by many of the migrants returned to Juárez.

"There are many human rights violations — too many. This is something we need to take care of," Javier Calvillo, the priest who runs Casa del Migrante, Juárez's largest migrant shelter, told KTSM-TV in El Paso. "No plan, even if it involves the government, churches and private business, can succeed if we continue to have deaths, kidnappings, human traffickers and if people don't respect the rights of migrants."

Robert Moore is a freelance journalist based in El Paso.

Bo Hamby, Amara Omeokwe and William Jones produced and edited the broadcast version of this story, with Mónica Ortiz Uribe contributing.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit


I'm reporting from the border this week on a Trump administration policy that started earlier this year. It's called Migrant Protection Protocols or Remain in Mexico. Here's what it means. If you cross the border into the United States seeking asylum, you have to wait to get a hearing in court. Now, in the past, you could wait in the United States. Under this new policy, people are being told they have to wait in Mexico instead. Just across the border from El Paso is the city of Juarez, and this is where many people are being sent.

Our story in Juarez starts with a tip. Our reporting team was wandering around downtown.

So we're looking around to see if anyone in this area is somebody who has come back across the border from the United States.

We know more than 7,000 migrants have been sent to Juarez under this Remain in Mexico policy. We assumed it would be easy to find and talk to them, but it wasn't. It was mid-afternoon. The sun was high, and it gets really hot in Juarez. And then finally after about an hour, we met a woman in the plaza downtown, and she told us she'd heard about a hotel where migrants are staying. It's a nondescript building not far from where we were. So we walked in, and a woman named Maribel showed us the way.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: (Speaking Spanish) Where are you taking us?

MARIBEL: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: We're going downstairs, she said?

URIBE: We're going down to the basement where other migrants are hanging out at this hotel.

KING: That voice you hear translating is Monica Ortiz Uribe. She's a journalist based in El Paso. She's been working with us. She and Maribel brought us down into the basement.

So I just want to take a look around. There is one light strip on the ceiling. This is basically a bare floor with one, two - maybe between 15 and 20 mattresses. There's no air in here. It is really, really sticky.

There were about two dozen people down there. One of them, a woman named Griselida, was really eager to tell us where she'd come from.


GRISELIDA: Honduras.

KING: Oh, with your son.

We are not using Griselida's last name or anyone else's because these are people who are in the middle of immigration proceedings. Griselida is 44. Her son, Julio, is 12. And here's what the Remain in Mexico policy looks like for them, the people who are living it. A couple days ago, she crossed into the United States seeking asylum.

GRISELIDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: U.S. immigration officials almost immediately sent her and her son back to Mexico. They told them they could find housing in a shelter in Juarez that everybody knows. But then they were turned over to Mexican immigration officials who told them, no, that shelter is full. You guys are on your own. She and Julio were among this group of about 10 people who were all released into the city at the same time. They wandered around together until they found this hotel. It costs about $4 a night for her and Julio to share a twin mattress on the floor.

GRISELIDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: You have heard stories like Griselida's before. A gang in Honduras was after her. They wanted to recruit her son, Julio. The gang chased them through Honduras for two years, and after that, she decided finally to just flee to the United States.

Can we get a sense of why a gang would want a 10-year-old, an 11-year-old, a 12-year-old boy? What did they want him to do?

GRISELIDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: She tells us the gang wanted Julio because it's easy to train young boys to kill people. The brains of young people, she says, are easy to dominate. Now, a bunch of other women had gathered around to listen. And at this point, they all started nodding because they know this story, too. Julio is almost as tall as his mom. He has her sad, dark eyes, and he's just disappointed. He's a kid, and he thought they'd get in.

JULIO: (Through interpreter) We had heard that if you came with your family or brought a small child, you could come in, so that made me hopeful. But then when we arrived, they said no more. They didn't even ask us anything. They just sent us back. They didn't tell us anything. I don't know what to do. I'm here with my mom.

KING: While she was in the U.S., Griselida was given something. It's in a big, clear, plastic bag, and I asked to see what was inside.

OK. So we're in a very dark room, which makes it hard to see - oh - but we have a cellphone here with a light. OK. So let me just take a look at what we have here.

There are two sets of papers - one for her, one for her Julio.

You arrived in the United States at or near El Paso, Texas - El Paso is circled with a pen - on or about July 6, 2019. You were not then admitted or paroled after inspection by an immigration officer. So this is a list of the things they have done wrong.

The papers are written in English, and Griselida has signed them. The problem is she can't read or write English or Spanish.

GRISELIDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: But she says immigration authorities demanded she sign the form. There is also another paper.

This is a form titled "Migrant Protection Protocols." This is the form that tells her you have to go back to Mexico.

There's a court date on it.

August 20, 2019.

It's right there on the form. That's the day that they will get their hearing in court. So for the moment, that's what she's holding on to - August 20, 2019. But when she says that date, it kind of kicks up a conversation in the basement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: One woman says, look; I've been here a month. She just got here last night. Why is her court date before mine? This kind of confusion is endemic. How do the court dates work? How do you get to the court in the U.S.? How do you get a lawyer? No one knows anything. There's also a young family from Guatemala staying in the basement. Mom is Glendi. Dad is Jilme. They have a 3-year-old daughter who clearly can't understand how worried her parents are.

GLENDI: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: They say the reason they are here is that little girl. She's energetic. She's having fun. She's running around the basement. So many people told us they want a better life for their kids. But her parents say they want to give her the best life. They've seen other people leave this hotel basement and go back to their home countries. But they are determined to stay and wait for their date in court.

JILME: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: October 28. At one point, Griselida drifted back over to us. And to us, she made her case for asylum. She says, I have proof that these gangs would have hurt my son. And then she asks, do we know how she can find a lawyer?

GRISELIDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: For now, she says, she has no plan. She's leaving the planning to God. It was really hot down in that basement. It was getting hard to breathe, and we were warned to leave Juarez before nightfall. So we left them there in the dark. We headed upstairs into the sunlight, and we walked back across the border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.