LAREDO, Texas – Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz remembers each of the terrified faces of the migrants he's helped over the past few years who say they have been kidnapped, extorted, assaulted and raped by cartel henchmen.
The migrants were stuck in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from this border city, under a Trump-era immigration program that forced some asylum-seekers arriving at the Southwest border to await approval in Mexico.
So, Ortiz rejoiced recently when he learned federal officials ended the program, known as Remain in Mexico. But the revelry was short-lived: Thousands of asylum-seekers are still on the Mexican side of the border because of yet another policy.
Ortiz, who runs four migrant shelters in Nuevo Laredo, tries to harbor them until they're allowed into the United States.
Most of the migrants in Nuevo Laredo were expelled there under Title 42, a pandemic-era rule that allows border agents to remove migrants without hearing their claim, to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Others were there under Remain in Mexico, and remain in spite of the policy change. Still others arrived at the border and haven't been allowed in to log their claim.
The suspension of the Remain in Mexico program did not trigger a sudden easing of the path into the U.S. If anything, migrant advocates say, it's sowed confusion and compounded the challenges, with a border backlog that continues to put people at risk.
“It’s overwhelming,” Ortiz said, as he drove a busload of migrants from Monterrey to Nuevo Laredo. “Right now, we’re crazy busy.”
Immigrant advocates applauded recently when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced the suspension of Remain in Mexico, formally known as the Migrants Protection Protocols, or MPP. The announcement followed a federal court order that ended the legal wrangling over President Joe Biden’s efforts to cease the policy.
But many are waiting to see how the Biden administration relieves the bottleneck of migrants at ports of entry along the border caused by MPP – which is now suspended – and Title 42, which remains in effect.
From December through the end of July, the government returned 7,112 asylum-seekers to Mexico to await court hearings under MPP, according to DHS statistics. In July, border officials expelled 72,616 migrants along the Southwest border under Title 42, according to the latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection report.
“That’s the bizarre tension here,” said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a legal advocacy group. “As much as we rejoice MPP going away, with Title 42 in place it’s kind of cold comfort. People are going to have zero access to asylum.”
Homeland Security did not reply to several requests for comment.
In a statement announcing the end of MPP, Homeland Security officials said they are no longer enrolling asylum-seekers in the program, and migrants will be allowed to exit it at their next court hearing.
But for many migrants, that’s several weeks or months away, Koop said. Meanwhile, they must remain in Mexico until those hearings and many still face threats there, she said.
“There’s no indication that something has changed to make the process safer,” Koop said.
Kidnappings, murders tracked under policy
The Trump administration sent more than 70,000 people to Mexico under the Remain in Mexico program during his four years in office. New York-based Human Rights First tracked more than 1,500 kidnappings, murders and other attacks of migrants in the program under Trump.
The Biden administration tried to cease the program, but lawsuits from Republican-controlled states led to court orders forcing it to continue. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the administration could end the program, and this month, a U.S. District Court also sided with the Biden administration, allowing it to end the program.
The Biden administration also attempted to lift Title 42, but in May a federal judge in Louisiana blocked that effort, keeping the policy in place. U.S. prosecutors have appealed that decision.
Many of the people originally deported because of Remain in Mexico under Trump have been allowed to enter the U.S. to face removal proceedings. The administration should focus on allowing in those who remain in the program, said Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First.
“The program caused total chaos and disorder,” she said. “It sent people back to where lives were in danger and caused huge backup and wait times in the asylum system. It was an evasion of existing refugee law.”
A new 'boogeyman' on the border
In Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas, news of the end of Remain in Mexico was met with confusion and unanswered questions, said Brendon Tucker, Reynosa-based project manager for Global Response Management, a nonprofit providing emergency medical care to vulnerable populations, including migrants.
An estimated 10,000 migrants are currently crammed into six permanent shelters and four makeshift camps around Reynosa – far greater than the 3,000 migrants Tucker helped treat in a makeshift camp in nearby Matamoros, Mexico, at the height of Remain in Mexico, he said. That camp was shut down, as its migrants were allowed into the U.S.
Most of the asylum-seekers waiting in Reynosa – from Brazil, Haiti, Nicaragua, Cuba and other countries – were either expelled under Title 42 or have not been allowed to cross into the United States at the port of entry, Tucker said. Others have been expelled under Remain in Mexico. In his four years working on the border, Tucker said he’s never seen so many asylum-seekers bottlenecked in one place.
Unlike MPP, asylum-seekers expelled under Title 42 don't receive a court date, causing more confusion and strife among migrants, Tucker said.
“MPP used to be the big boogeyman,” he said. “Now it’s the guy cracking his knuckles behind the guy punching you in the face, which is Title 42.”
He added: “In some ways, things are a lot worse.”
Ortiz said he’s glad to see the days of Remain in Mexico recede into memory, albeit bad ones. At the program's height in 2018 and 2019, his shelters filled with victims of cartel violence, as migrants were expelled into Mexico and quickly picked up by armed men who drove them to safehouses and called family members to send money for their release, often torturing them, he said.
A key difference today is that U.S. authorities are better cooperating with him to try to get more asylum-seekers processed and into the United States, Ortiz said.
Still, his days are filled with shuttling migrants from one dangerous Mexican city to the next and keeping them off the streets and in his shelters. Besides the 350 asylum-seekers staying at his four shelters, there are around 3,000 Haitians huddling in parks and plazas across Reynosa, he said.
Ortiz said he doesn’t see much difference between Remain in Mexico and Title 42.
“They both put vulnerable people into a community where they could be kidnapped or abused,” he said. “It’s still challenging.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The end of Remain in Mexico policy hasn't ended backlog at the border