The U.S. added another city this week to the growing list of locations where asylum-seekers are being returned to Mexico to await their immigration court hearings.
Eagle Pass, Texas, a quiet city on the Rio Grande where border agents have carried out an increased number of migrant apprehensions this year, is the sixth city along the U.S.-Mexico border where the controversial program is under way.
Since January, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have dropped off more than 55,000 people back to Mexico who crossed into the U.S. without authorization.
There, they face the choice of remaining for months until their first court date, or abandoning their asylum case — possibly applying for humanitarian relief in Mexico or returning to their home country.
Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) was already in place in the California cities of San Diego and Calexico, as well as the Texas cities of El Paso, Laredo and Brownsville.
Returns though Eagle Pass to Piedras Negras, Mexico, began on Oct. 29, according to CBP.
Asylum-seekers will receive notices to appear at the tent court in Laredo, Texas, for hearings two to four months in the future, according to CBP.
The cities are about 200 kilometers apart — a more than two-hour drive.
While the U.S. government lauds the policy as a major factor in reducing the number of unauthorized border crossings in 2019, critics of MPP decry the dangers migrants face in cartel-dominated Mexican border cities like Nuevo Laredo, and other areas where they are vulnerable to kidnapping, rape or assault.
'System designed for failure'
In an August report, Human Rights First skewered the U.S. policy, renaming it the "Migrant Persecution Protocols" and enumerating scores of reports of violent acts committed against individuals sent back to Mexico — largely Central Americans from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
"We are confident in the program's integrity and ability to adjudicate asylum claims quickly and with all due process," said U.S. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, as the expansion was announced Monday.
But the legal processes around MPP are questioned by lawyers and immigrant advocates.
"This is a system designed for failure," said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an immigration policy analyst at the American Immigration Council.
MPP has been officially expanded to Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras. People will be given hearing dates in Laredo, two hours away. DHS even admits in the press release that some will have to wait up to 4 months just for a first hearing.— Aaron Reichlin-Melnick (@ReichlinMelnick) October 29, 2019
Again, this is a system designed for failure. https://t.co/6IZdVKM2zh
Special tent courts were erected in recent months solely to handle MPP cases, but allow asylum-seekers to speak with a judge over videoconferencing, rather than in the same courtroom.
Media and other observers have not had regular access to the tent courts.