Constance Wannamaker wanted to scream and cry at the same time.
The Texas immigration attorney had just heard what should have been great news: Her client, a 21-year-old Guatemalan woman, was getting released from the El Paso Processing Center after weeks in detention.
But that’s just a sliver of the story.
When the asylum seeker first tried to come to the United States in April, she was returned to Mexico to await a hearing in the U.S. She crossed the border again in May but was later sent away once more to a dangerous city far from home.
While she was forced to shelter in Ciudad Juárez, a stranger broke into her hotel room and raped her, her lawyer said. After she was let back into the U.S. and detained, she discovered she was pregnant. And once immigration authorities found out, they decided to remove her from their care with almost no notice.
“They were just letting her go with nothing,” said Wannamaker, whose client did not want to speak to the press but gave Wannamaker permission to share her experience. “No money. Here’s the gate. Walk out of it.”
Stories like hers couldn’t have happened in years past because the framework that makes them possible didn’t exist. It all began when the Trump administration announced a program last December returning some migrants to Mexico while they wait for their U.S. immigration court hearings, instead of fighting their cases from here. Soon, the number of people subjected to the policy grew as implementation across the border expanded, and more and more migrants — many of them asylum seekers — found themselves in violent towns on the wrong side of the southern border.
Under the initiative, officially dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols, U.S. Customs and Border Protection “just kind of dumps people back across the bridge, and then they have nowhere to go,” said Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher and policy analyst for Human Rights First. The protocols are intended to apply only to non-Mexicans, which means the vast majority of those who have been affected are foreigners in a land that’s already dangerous enough for natives.
Migrants are stranded in unknown places like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, which were ranked among the five most violent cities in the world last year by the Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice.
They’re also dropped off in Matamaros and Nuevo Laredo — part of Tamaulipas, where the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council warns Americans not to travel because of crime. In Matamaros, OSAC says, “violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common.”
And yet the Department of Homeland Security still insists on its website that sending migrants to those towns instead of keeping them in the U.S. “will help restore a safe and orderly immigration process… and reduce threats to life, national security, and public safety, while ensuring that vulnerable populations receive the protections they need.”
CBP and DHS did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
Under MPP, the Trump administration has sent more than 51,000 people in legal limbo back to the frontier, according to CBS News. Since the policy was implemented, Human Rights First has tallied 353 reports of rape, torture, kidnapping and other violent attacks against individuals who have been returned to Mexico — and that’s just the incidents that have been made public. Kizuka presumes there are many more he and his colleagues haven’t heard about.
“MPP injected a whole new large population of potential victims into each of these border communities,” said Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Mexico is an especially dangerous country for women. Recent protests have highlighted murders, sexual assaults and kidnappings that all contribute to the country’s reputation for gender-based violence, and in 2018, Mexico had one of the highest numbers of documented gender-based killings in Latin America.
Meanwhile, migrants are targeted by local gangs and organized crime groups because they’re in transit and don’t know the lay of the land, Selee said. “They’re easy prey,” he warned.
As both a woman and a migrant, Wannamaker’s client was already in jeopardy. But she is also a lesbian — a factor for which her attorney suggested the U.S. government failed to screen — and because of her sexuality, she could have been exempted from the program. “Individuals from vulnerable populations may be excluded on a case-by-case basis,” according to DHS, though in practice, advocates on the ground indicate there’s little rhyme or reason to those determinations.
Pregnant women have often been returned to Mexico — as have 16,000 kids, almost 500 of them infants, according to Reuters. Earlier this month, 12 asylum seekers — including nine LGBTQ+ people and one deaf, non-verbal migrant — requested exemptions from the program after facing harassment and physical assault by other migrants, residents and cartel members in Matamoros. For most of them, it wasn’t the first time asking for CBP to exercise discretion.
Their requests were all denied. They were sent back to Mexico, where they had allegedly been punched, slapped and called slurs, according to Zenén Jaimes Pérez, whose organization Texas Civil Rights Project represents them. These seemingly arbitrary decisions have inspired scrutiny by advocates and attorneys over who is vulnerable in the eyes of this administration.
Unlike many of the migrants in MPP, who travel between the U.S. and Mexico for multiple hearings, Wannamaker’s client was removed from the program and detained in Texas after her first hearing. But at that point, the damage had been done. Her reported rape in Ciudad Juárez and subsequent pregnancy were a direct result of the protocols; there was no other reason for her to visit Mexico at the time of the assault.
“She wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for MPP,” said Wannamaker.
Even now, the fact that she has been released doesn’t mean she’s free. She’s only allowed to leave detention for the time being and hasn’t been granted asylum, so she could still eventually be deported to Guatemala.
As migrants like her shoulder the burden of changing policy, more asylum seekers are on their way — and it’s unlikely anything will stop them. William C. Silverman, who leads law firm Proskauer’s global pro-bono efforts, visited Mexico City and surrounding shelters in May to advise people traveling north about what would happen to them once they reached the U.S.-Mexico border. Some of them told him about the violence they had already faced in Mexico during their trip, including robberies and abduction.
Still, it didn’t matter what he told anyone: Nothing could make them turn around. “They just didn’t seem persuaded by how difficult it would be because of the terrible conditions they were fleeing,” Silverman said.
He warned them that there was a good chance they would be sent back to Mexico after they arrived at the border. But not even being stranded there — where some of them had already been victimized — could change their minds.
“This may reduce the number of people crossing the border in the U.S., but it doesn’t reduce the human tragedy that’s unfolding,” Silverman said. “There’s no policy that’s cruel enough to disincentivize certain people from Central America to make the journey north.”