The judge’s case-tracking software was down; the prosecutor, squinting at his computer, wasn’t sure if he was supposed to know when asylum-seekers were released into the United States rather than sent back to Mexico; and four out of five of the asylum-seekers whose cases were on the docket that day were still on the other side of the border. Plus, a winter storm was bearing down on West Texas.
The El Paso, Texas, immigration court where the Migrant Protection Protocols hearings took place was beset, on the day I visited in early February, by a series of logistical and legal hitches. One of the missing asylum-seekers was out because of chickenpox, two had Covid-19, and one was simply MIA.
The judge ruled that the last one be ordered deported in absentia (that is, deported from a country he was not into a country he feared returning to), but then she received word that he’d shown up at the port of entry; she retracted his deportation order and retired to her chamber. The court has no way to contact asylum-seekers enrolled in the program, and there was nothing to do but wait.
The judge and the government prosecutor were also repeatedly confused about who was scheduled for the hearings and what their status was. The single MPP enrollee who was actually in court that day said he was scared of being returned to Mexico. The judge scheduled his non-refoulment interview — designed as a safeguard for people who would be in danger of waiting out their cases in Mexico — for later in the day. It was already nearly 2 p.m., and migrants are supposed to have at least 24 hours to prepare for the interview and look for an attorney. The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency that runs immigration courts, did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. Supreme Court is now set to decide whether to standardize such proceedings and vastly expand MPP, which, critics claim, continues to be a catastrophe for due process and protecting migrants. Introduced by President Donald Trump in 2018, the program, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” returns asylum-seekers south of the border to wait for an immigration court date — a chance to make their case for asylum. In practice, MPP thrusts asylum-seekers into the hands of criminal networks and corrupt government agents in notoriously dangerous Mexican border cities.