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BROWNSVILLE — So far, asylum-seeking migrants who land in the most heavily crossed patch of the U.S.-Mexico border, in deep South Texas, have been spared from the controversial “remain in Mexico” program that requires applicants to go back across the border to await their fate from an immigration judge.
That’s about to change, officials say.
In coming days, and perhaps as early as Friday, some of the migrants apprehended in the U.S. Border Patrol’s busy Rio Grande Valley Sector are expected to be taken back across the Texas-Mexico border and told to wait for an asylum hearing in a yet-to-be-built courtroom in Brownsville, officials say.
The Tribune's reporting for this project is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
The move would represent a dramatic expansion of the program, and could be a game changer on the border because the high migrant traffic in the region means the policy would apply to a larger number of asylum seekers, who would be left to await hearings amid the dicey conditions in this stretch of Mexico’s Tamaulipas state — the birthplace of the Gulf Cartel and its violent offspring, the Zetas. The U.S. State Department’s own “Do Not Travel” list warns U.S. citizens to stay away from Tamaulipas due to high rates of “crime and kidnapping.”
It's not clear exactly when the expansion of the program, formally called Migrant Protection Protocols, would happen. But a government source in Washington with knowledge of the matter said the first migrants could be returned from deep South Texas to Mexico beginning Friday. The source, who did not have authorization to speak on the record, spoke on the condition of anonymity. In addition, the office of U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, the Democrat who represents Brownsville, said a CBP official who had originally told the office the program likely would be implemented in “two to four weeks” called back this week to say that “it’s going to be sooner than that,” according to Vela spokeswoman Abigail Sheppard. Vela’s office did not have an exact date for when the returns would begin.
Media representatives for the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Brownsville City Manager Noel Bernal told The Texas Tribune he was told about the plans to extend MPP to the Rio Grande Valley during a CBP briefing July 8. He said CBP told him that migrants seeking asylum up and down the sector — from the tip of Texas in Cameron County to its western edges in Starr County — would be returned to Mexico. Their subsequent hearings would be held in a makeshift courtroom on federal land adjacent to the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, he said.
“We would basically be a catchall for any processing from far west of the Rio Grande Valley as far as Roma [in Starr County] all the way through Brownsville,” Bernal said.
The city of Brownsville and its nonprofit partners have been coping with an unprecedented surge of migrants needing basic necessities and help getting to their final destinations. Bernal said assisting asylum seekers has been costing Brownsville and its partners between $40,000 and $60,000 a month. He is seeking $1.8 million in federal funds for current and projected costs under a provision in Congress' recently passed $4.6 billion emergency border bill that is designed to help local communities cope with the influx.
Bernal said CBP told him the program would bring a major reduction in the number of migrants in Brownsville.
“This is intended to reduce the amount of traffic that we are receiving for the current processing of migrant families,” Bernal said. “I think that if they’re Spanish speakers, they’re going directly back to Mexico.”
The Trump administration launched the MPP program in California in January and has been steadily expanding it down the border, including to El Paso, where thousands have been sent across the border to Ciudad Juarez to await their asylum hearings. Last week, it was extended to Laredo, which also sits opposite the state of Tamaulipas.
Now, as American authorities seek to expand the program to the area of borderland with the most apprehensions, some people on the Mexican side of the border who are already are trying to cope with the flow of migrants are sounding alarms about even more people heading there. Juan Antonio Sierra Vargas, manager of a Catholic shelter in Matamoros, reacted with horror Wednesday when The Texas Tribune asked how he would cope with migrants returning there under the MPP program.
“Oh, I hope not,” he said.
While migrant traffic from the south has gone down from its peaks in May and early June, Sierra Vargas said the number of deported migrants arriving from the north — from all over the U.S. interior — has been on the rise in Matamoros. He said at the current rate, the city will receive 2,000 deported migrants there in July alone — many of them seeking help at his Casa Del Migrante Juan Diego y San Francisco de Asis shelter. He shuddered at the thought of MPP sending back asylum seekers.
“It’s a big quantity of people that I don’t think any of us are prepared to handle. If it’s a massive arrival of people, it will hurt us all,” he said. “I don’t think any city on the border has the capacity to deal with it.”
South Texas immigration attorney Carlos M. Garcia said migrants sent back under the program will face the double whammy of being stuck in one of the most dangerous regions of the country and then struggling to get legal help in a place where U.S. lawyers can’t easily venture.
“There’s no way our government should be sending people back to Tamaulipas, specifically the border area where daily gunfights are common, where migrants traveling through that area are disappearing ... because drug trafficking organizations and cartels are preying upon them,” Garcia said. “To be putting these migrants in that situation is negligent, and it’s immoral for us to be doing that to them.”