Twice, asylum seeker Maria has shown up to her scheduled court dates in El Paso, Texas, and twice, officials have sent her back to Mexico. For three months, Maria has struggled to get herself removed from the U.S. government’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico” policy, a program that has officially ended.
Maria, 43, originally fled from Colombia alone in May after receiving death threats by organized criminal groups for refusing to pay extortion fees, she says. She left behind her elderly parents in the hopes of reuniting with her niece in New York City. But after she arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, she was placed into MPP and sent back to Mexico in June, where she now lives in a shelter for asylum seeking women in Ciudad Juárez, a city notorious for crime against migrants and women.
“It was extremely hard to leave [my parents] because I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to see them again,” Maria, who TIME is identifying by her middle name because she fears for the safety of her family in Colombia, tells TIME in Spanish. “So I already came from Colombia depressed and in a bad way, and when they put me in [MPP]… Well, everything that I fled in Colombia I’m scared of facing here in Mexico.”
The Biden Administration officially terminated the controversial Trump-era policy—which requires people with open asylum cases to wait in Mexico while their case is adjudicated in the U.S.— on Aug. 8, after a go-ahead from the Supreme Court. But Maria and hundreds of others are still stuck waiting in Mexico for weeks or months before they can be permitted to enter the U.S. because of a new process designed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that requires those in MPP to wait until their next court date before they can be removed from the program. This system differs substantially from how the agency handled MPP termination in the past with a process that allowed people to leave the program without needing to wait for a court appearance.
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“When you say [MPP is] over, it’s a little deceptive because these cases are still going on. That’s the problem,” says John Balli, managing attorney at the Laredo, Texas office of RAICES, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy and legal services organization. “I think the Biden Administration, they got caught a little bit flat-footed on how they were going to handle ending this.”
The Biden Administration first attempted to end MPP in 2021, before conservative attorneys general sued and a Texas district judge required the Administration to continue operating the program while the case worked its way through the court system. In the roughly six-month period of 2021 before the Texas judge’s ruling, asylum seekers enrolled in the first iteration of MPP could fill out a form online, receive COVID-19 testing, and be removed from the program to resume their asylum cases while living in the U.S. By the end of May 2021, more than 10,000 people in MPP were removed from the program this way, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization at Syracuse University. This time, no such process exists. Instead, asylum seekers in MPP have to wait until their next court date in the U.S. before they can be removed from the program and allowed to enter the country, meaning some will wait several more weeks or months.
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DHS says the new process will make the system more efficient, compared to the first wind-down in 2021. “Most individuals currently enrolled in MPP have court cases scheduled in the coming weeks,” a DHS spokesperson tells TIME in a statement. “By contrast, during the Biden Administration’s 2021 wind-down of the last Administration’s implementation of MPP, DHS found that many individuals did not have court dates, resulting in a costly and slow effort to identify where individuals were and coordinate their entry for immigration proceedings.”
More than 71,000 people were enrolled in MPP during the Trump Administration, and under the Biden Administration, an additional nearly 12,000 people have been enrolled in MPP as of July 31, according to data by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including Maria. As of July 19, there were 1,115 open MPP cases for people waiting in Mexico, according to DHS data.
Maria’s next court date is in early September. She’ll show up in El Paso and make her case before an immigration judge— and like most people in MPP, she will do so without the help of a lawyer. She hopes then she’ll finally be removed from MPP.
‘This is not a game’
Even when migrants have a scheduled court date in the U.S., it’s far from assured that they’ll be removed from MPP or granted asylum.
Since December, 88% of people who have completed their MPP cases have lost in court and have been ordered removed from the U.S., according to DHS. 85% of those case losses were the result of people missing court dates, an issue immigration advocates and lawyers argue is a result of people unable to travel safely from Mexico to U.S. ports of entry. Of the 254 MPP cases that have so far been decided on the merits, only 63 have ended in asylum relief, according to DHS. (DHS did not answer TIME’s question of whether those in MPP who missed court dates will have their cases reopened.)
“It’s stacked against them,” Balli, the RAICES lawyer, says. “It’s already hard enough to win and then when you’re Monterrey, Mexico living in a shelter, or homeless… it’s impossible to properly prepare and have the documents necessary, the documents that the judges want to see, and the evidence they want to see, to approve an asylum case.”
Many of the immigrant advocates and lawyers who spoke to TIME questioned why the Biden Administration was able to parole nearly 21,000 Ukrainians in the month of April at the U.S.-Mexico border, on average 700 a day, but has not instituted a similar expedited process for people under MPP. The current wind-down of MPP “feels slow, stalled, and I’m not going to lie to you, at this point, a little cruel,” says Priscilla Orta, supervising attorney for Project Corazon, a program by Lawyers for Good Government, a human rights advocacy organization that runs pro bono legal service programs. Orta says one of her teenage MPP clients told her that she was sexually assaulted in Matamoros while waiting for her MPP court date. “Does DHS not sense the urgency?” Orta says. “This is not a game… What if another person is hurt, assaulted, beaten, dies, while they’re waiting?”
While Maria waits for the day she can be removed from MPP, she has turned to self-help books to keep her motivated. She’s reading Caminando Con Mi Mente (Walking With My Mind), by Colombian author Santiago Zapata, whose story of overcoming hardship and being a decisive player in life brings her comfort. “I love reading so many stories,” Maria says, “but especially the ones that take me to a good place.”
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