By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
One year ago, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiated a program called the Migration Protection Protocols, or MPP. It’s designed to send asylum seekers to northern Mexico to await their asylum hearings with an immigration judge in the United States. Always controversial, the program is now expanding from six to seven camps in northern Mexico, and DHS has added Brazilian nationals to the list of applicants eligible to be sent to Mexico. Meanwhile, living conditions – and the security situation in and around the camps – continue to deteriorate.
Until recently, migrants apprehended in Arizona’s Tucson sector were sent to wait for their hearings in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. According to Arizona Public Media, these asylum seekers will now also be sent to Mexico through the Nogales Port of Entry — the seventh port of entry to be included in the program, and the first in Arizona. U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Meredith Mingledorff said CBP decided to expand the program because it believes migrants were crossing the border into Arizona to avoid being sent back to Mexico.
MPP Criticized From Its Inception
The program has been criticized from the start, primarily because CBP is sending asylum seekers to wait in parts of northern Mexico that are besieged by cartel- and gang-related violence. Over 56,000 migrants have been sent to Mexico as part of the MPP program to camps in border cities across the ports of San Diego and Calexico in California, and El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville, and Eagle Pass in Texas.
Travel Warning For Mexico
According to Newsweek, a report recently released by Human Rights First indicated at least 25,000 of those in the program were being forced to wait in Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo in the notoriously dangerous Tamaulipas state. The U.S. State Department travel warning for Mexico warns that Americans should “not travel [to Tamaulipas] due to crime and kidnapping.” Organized crime activity, including “gun battles, murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion and sexual assault,” it says, are common along the northern border.
Violent Attacks in Tamaulipas
Meanwhile, criminal groups also “target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments.” So far, Human Rights First has documented at least 816 public reports of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping or other violent attacks against asylum seekers and migrants returned to Mexico under MPP.
Worse Than a War Zone
In January 2020, Air Force veteran Pam Campos-Palma join a group of veterans traveling south of the border to Matamoros to see the migrant camps first-hand. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, she told Newsweek that it was worse than a war zone. She said men and women walked around with visible wounds, often from being kidnapped and assaulted by criminal groups permeating the area, while children, who were so malnourished they looked years younger than they really were, lied sick in their tents.
Migration Demographics Shift
The majority of migrants in the MPP program have typically been from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. However, that is changing. The program was never designed to include Mexican citizens because the vast majority of illegal border crossers since 2012 have been from Central America. However, because of agreements brokered in the last year between the White House and Central American governments, fewer migrants from these countries are applying for asylum. Those who do – or are denied – are sent back to Central America instead of Mexico. As a result, the demographics have shifted, and once again there are more Mexican nationals crossing the border to seek asylum than Central American migrants.
Secretive Pilot Program
According to Vox, in early October 2019, the Trump administration launched a secretive pilot program in El Paso specifically designed to decide Mexican asylum cases quickly while migrants were still in CBP custody. Because of that process, combined with increased “metering” measures at ports of call, Mexicans who were previously being processed at the ports are now turned away and forced to wait in the migrant camps on the Mexican side of the border.
Brazilian Migrants Included
Then on Jan. 29, DHS announced that Brazilian migrants would now be included in the MPP program. According to DHS, the number of Brazilian nationals arriving at the Southwest border has tripled in just the last year. The release stated, “This law does not limit the program to any one nationality or language.” It continued, “The fact that Brazilians are now part of the program shows that the Department, along with its Mexican counterparts, have always sought to expand the program in a safe and responsible manner.”
Strong Relationship Between US and Brazil
Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a far-right conservative politician considered to be Latin America’s version of President Trump. In December 2019, Trump boasted about a “strong” relationship between the United States and Brazil after going back on a plan to reimpose steel tariffs on the country. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro is currently embroiled in allegations of racism, corruption, and homophobia. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to his citizens being included in the MPP program.