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Why asylum seekers on either side of the southern border still face an uncertain future

In February, President Joe Biden announced plans to wind down "Remain in Mexico" - the Trump administration policy that forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while immigration courts considered their cases. But thousands are still waiting in Mexico, and even those who’ve been allowed into the U.S. have an uncertain future. Amna Nawaz reports from El Paso, Texas.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In February, President Biden announced plans to wind down remain in Mexico, the name given to the Trump administration policy that forced tens of thousands of legal asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while immigration courts considered their cases.

    But thousands of asylum people seeking asylum are still waiting in Mexico, and even those who've been allowed into the U.S. have an uncertain future.

    Amna Nawaz has our report from El Paso, Texas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    After years of waiting in Mexico, these asylum seekers' first stop in the U.S. is here, in El Paso, Texas, among them, 40-year-old H, from Guatemala. We're using just her first initial to protect her.

    She told me how difficult her journey had been. H was among the thousands of people stuck in MPP, the Migrant Protection Protocol program. Launched by former President Trump, it forced people seeking asylum to remain in Mexico while their court cases unfolded in the U.S. Those cases ground to a halt in the pandemic, leaving H and her teenage son, who fled gang violence, stranded in Ciudad Juarez.

    Did you have any idea when you would be allowed to come to the U.S.?

  • H (through translator):

    Not really. They only told us that, if we wanted to enter, we'd be going to court. They'd give us the date on when to be there and return. That was the expectation of us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, in February, President Biden prioritized 25,000 active MPP cases for processing, trying to wind down his predecessor's policy.

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    I make no apologies for ending programs that did not exist before Trump became president that have an incredibly negative impact on the law, international law, as well as on human dignity.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    H was among those cases. She was screened by U.S. officials, tested for COVID, and brought to this shelter in Texas.

    But she arrived alone. A year earlier, she tells us her teenage son decided he couldn't wait in limbo anymore, and decided to cross the border on his own, without telling her.

    How long was it before you knew that he'd safely made it into the U.S.?

  • H (through translator):

    For three days, I didn't know anything. He was alone, all on his own, only 17, just a kid.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ruben Garcia is the director here at Annunciation House, a volunteer shelter network that offers support to refugees and migrants. He's done this work for 40 years, and recently met with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on his visit to El Paso.

    Garcia says he welcomes Biden's unwinding of MPP, which he calls so far very orderly. Every day, he receives about 120 people with MPP cases at his shelter.

  • Ruben Garcia:

    When they first arrived, they're desperate to get to their families and to say this part is now over. And for many of them, it's been a nightmare, because they have had to learn to survive in a foreign environment, in an environment where there is a certain level of risk and danger.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But he warns there is still a long, uncertain road ahead.

  • Ruben Garcia:

    None of these families have actually won their asylum claim. All of them are in immigration proceedings. And a good number of them are not going to win their asylum claim and are going to face deportation at some date in the future.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Biden administration is now moving people with MPP cases through multiple ports of entry, Brownsville, El Paso, Laredo, Hidalgo, and San Diego. Eagle Pass, Texas, last week became the sixth port of entry processing MPP cases.

    So far, they have processed more than 7,000 cases, meaning many thousands more still remain in Mexico, among them, Diosmany. He's been waiting in Nogales for two years.

  • Diosmany (through translator):

    The government doesn't give you an exact date of when you would be able to enter or when your next court appearance would be or when you have to enter the U.S. to stand in front of a judge. Nothing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Diosmany and his wife, Lidsay (ph), say they fled political persecution and threats in Cuba and asked for asylum after crossing the U.S. border. Forced to wait in Mexico, he says they faced new threats.

  • Diosmany (through translator):

    There's organized crime, the mafia, people who assault you, people who rape women, everything. I am fearful day in and day out. I hardly ever leave my house.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Fearful of staying, the couple tried again to enter the U.S. This time, Diosmany's wife was allowed to stay in the U.S., but he was sent back to Mexico.

  • Diosmany (through translator):

    In separating me from my wife, allowing her into the U.S. and deporting me, the U.S. doesn't realize that I'm in the same grave danger she is.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    While Diosmany waits in Mexico, and the border is officially closed, U.S. officials are seeing record numbers of border crossings. According to Customs and Border Protection, that number has been growing rapidly this year to more than 170,000 in March, a 15-year high.

    Recidivism is high. Most people crossing are single adults, and most are immediately turned back across the border under a pandemic-related rule. But some, like Diosmany's wife, are being allowed to stay in the U.S. and pursue asylum claims.

  • Alexandra Miller:

    Whether you enter irregularly between ports or whether you wait and present at a port of entry, you're supposed to have access to asylum. And for the past two years, that really hasn't been true.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Alex Miller is managing attorney of the border action team at The Florence Project, a legal services organization based in Arizona. She's working on Diosmany's case, among others.

  • Alexandra Miller:

    The ports of entry are closed to the vast majority of asylum seekers in danger in Mexico. What that means then is they see this increase in individuals who are actually succeeding, that are deciding to cross through the desert or over a wall or through rivers and that are actually entering the United States, and they think, OK, well, maybe I should just try. That could be me, too.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But the data shows, even though more people in total have been granted asylum in recent years, denial rates have also soared, from around 54 percent in 2016 to a record high 71 percent by the end of 2020.

    Numbers reveal the odds of winning an asylum case depend heavily on having a lawyer and country of origin, with those from Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico having the least success. Even as asylum rules have narrowed, the forces causing people to emigrate have only gotten worse.

  • Rep. Veronica Escobar:

    Things are not going to change until we address them at the root cause.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar represents Texas' 16th District, which includes El Paso.

  • Veronica Escobar:

    The climate crisis, drugs, criminal activity in neighboring countries, crushing poverty. The more that you close off legal avenues, you're going to see an increase in irregular crossing or undocumented crossing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Those who make it into the U.S. face another part of the broken system. With so many cases and so few people to process them, it can take years to stand before a judge.

  • Doris Meissner:

    That is part of the brokenness of the system.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Doris Meissner is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She acknowledges why people apply for asylum, but says most claims don't meet the standard.

  • Doris Meissner:

    Those are real reasons for leaving their countries. But for most of them, they are not reasons that ultimately qualify for asylum under U.S. law, under the international definitions.

    The big need is an asylum system that is fixed in a way that actually makes it possible to make those decisions, but make them in a way that is not only fair, but timely, which means months, not years.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    H is now headed to Kansas to stay with her sister. Her son is already there, and they will be reunited soon. After that, she doesn't know what will happen.

  • H (through translator):

    I hope I will eventually find work. I am praying to God that I win my asylum case. I have faith that God will help me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    She and her son have made it to the U.S., but whether or not they can stay remains to be seen.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in El Paso, Texas.

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