MONTERREY, MEXICO — It was close to midnight when Angelica Zavala and her two kids were dropped off at the bus station in downtown Monterrey on July 29.
She was glad to be out of the hot parking lot where they’d been camping outside a migration office in Nuevo Laredo for three days, but the bus driver had bad news. He didn’t know anything about the shelter and job the Mexican government told her she would find here.
“We asked the driver, what are we supposed to do? You’re leaving us stranded here, it’s dangerous,” Zavala recalled. “ He said, ‘I’ve taken care of my responsibility … My job is to get you here. I don’t know what you’re going to do.’ ”
Welcome to the ever-changing and often brutal “remain in Mexico” program, which is being carried out up and down the border by the Trump Administration in controversial partnership with the government of Mexico. Migrants subjected to it are required to wait in Mexico, potentially for months or longer, while their asylum cases play out in U.S. immigration court.
More than 20,000 asylum-seekers have been returned to Mexico since the program was launched in January, and according to the Associated Press, about 3,000 had been sent back as of the beginning of August to dicey Tamaulipas State, ranked as a “do not travel” zone by the U.S. State Department because so many people get robbed, kidnapped or murdered there.
Late last month, hundreds of migrants returned to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas — including Zavala and her two children — were bused three hours farther south to Monterrey, an industrial (and far safer) city with a bustling economy and the third-largest metropolitan area in Mexico. More recently, buses have taken many of them all the way to the deep southern state of Chiapas, along the Guatemala border, according to several migrants waiting for the buses near the bridge connecting Nuevo Laredo to Laredo, Texas.
Many of the migrants returned to Mexico are already long gone, having abandoned their asylum cases and returned home to Central America — a phenomenon the Texas Tribune and other news outlets have documented in recent days. One migrant in Nuevo Laredo —Genaro Martinez from San Pedro Sula, Honduras — joined the retreat, saying he’d “rather go home” before he hopped on one of several buses bound for Chiapas Tuesday evening.
Human rights activists and immigrant advocates have tried to stop the “remain in Mexico” program, formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols, but it has survived in the courts so far, making it one of the Trump Administration’s biggest border policy triumphs.
Along with a law enforcement crackdown in the Mexican interior and at the country’s southern border with Guatemala, the MPP program is one of the factors officials say has contributed to a significant drop in migrant apprehensions on the U.S. side of the border.
But in humanitarian terms, it hasn’t lived up to the government advertising — in either country.
Mexico’s left-leaning President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador vowed to give shelter and jobs to migrants while he avoids punishing tariffs Trump threatened to impose unless the migrant flow slows down. Likewise, the right-leaning Trump Administration has provided assurances to Congress that Mexico would give migrants “all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay” here.
On the ground, migrants returned to Nuevo Laredo, Juarez and other Mexican cities say they’ve been left to fend for themselves — enduring illness, kidnapping and sometimes worse.
Nora Lizeth Valdez, 33, from Aguanqueterique, Honduras, said both U.S. and Mexican immigration officials told her she would be given shelter and a job in Mexico while she and her 10-year-old daughter wait for their turn in immigration court. But, she said, “it was all lies.”
After Mexican migration authorities promised she’d be well cared for in Monterrey, Valdez got on the bus and figured they’d be met by federal agents, just as they were when they were walked across the bridge from Laredo into Nuevo Laredo.
“But they just abandoned us at a small bus station … at 10 o’clock at night without money, without food,” she said. “We slept on the sidewalk of the station because they wouldn’t let us inside, each of us taking care of the other.”
Mexico’s National Institute of Migration did not return calls and messages seeking comment about the treatment returned migrants are receiving here. AP recently reported that the Mexico opened its first government shelter in Juarez for asylum-seeking migrants and had plans to open more in other cities.
After being left at the bus station in Monterrey, Zavala, 40, and her two children, aged 12 and 14, ended up spending a few hours in a hotel frequented by prostitutes. The next day, the hotel clerk told them about a Catholic shelter, Casa Indi, where they’ve been ever since.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the people decided to go home rather than stay,” said Zavala, 40. “There were about 40 of us in the bus and only I and three friends went to the hotel.” She’s not sure how many of the rest stayed in Monterrey and how many have gone back home, but she and her friends are the only ones who found their way to Casi Indi.
Run by charismatic priest Felipe de Jesus Sanchez, Casi Indi — which got its start as a shelter for the poor and downtrodden of Monterrey — has about 650 migrants now, roughly 70% men and 30% women and children. The migrants who have made their way to his shelter after being returned to Mexico under the MPP program are part of the latest immigration trend stretching his shelter to near capacity — and causing his water bill to exceed $3,000 a month.
In recent days, his staff has picked up several loads of migrants who were dropped off at various bus stations in the city, often late at night.
“They are kicking migrants around like balls,” Sanchez said. “They are not really illegal nor migrants — they are refugees, because look how they are being thrown out of their countries.”
The migrants brought to his shelter from Nuevo Laredo were carrying U.S. paperwork showing they had initial court appearances in Laredo — in a hastily built court complex consisting of tents and portable buildings near the international bridge — in September and October.
Even if they make it back to the border for the hearings, it will be an uphill climb to enter and stay in the U.S.
Several migrants interviewed by the Tribune in Monterrey, for example, were unaware that they would have to demonstrate they are being persecuted in their home countries and are afraid to return home in order to win asylum.
Asked what he would tell the judge at his Oct. 23 hearing, Marlon Cartagena, 36, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, said he would say he wanted a “job opportunity” and a good education for his daughter, Ashli. He said the only thing he was afraid of was poverty.
“We’re not looking for asylum, we’re looking for a job,” Cartagena said. “For a year or a few months, that’s all we’re looking for.”
Others said they were deathly afraid of going home but still had no idea how to fight their asylum cases. None of the migrants at Casa Indi have received help from any lawyers, which puts them at a huge disadvantage, since only about one in ten win their asylum cases without legal help, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. A recent TRAC analysis found that migrants had legal representation in just over 1% of the MPP cases decided through the end of June.
Zavala, the Salvadoran migrant who was dropped off with her kids in Monterrey at midnight, has called every non-profit group on the list of pro-bono lawyers she got from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and she said none have answered the phone.
Going home isn’t an option for her. She said the MS-13 gang killed her husband three months ago, and if she loses her asylum case in the U.S. she’ll stay in Mexico.
“I don’t plan on returning to my country,” she said as tears streamed down her face. “It’s safer here.”
Daniel Mendez of El Mañana newspaper in Nuevo Laredo contributed to this story.