He Sent His Two Young Daughters Across The US Border Without Him. Now He And His Wife Are Stuck In Mexico While They Await Biden’s Next Move.
"Just because the camp, which was an eyesore for the Mexican government, is gone doesn't mean we're not still suffering here."
Felipe was scrolling through his Facebook feed when he saw that as part of an effort to close down an encampment in Mexico that had became a symbol for a Trump-era policy that forced thousands of immigrants into dangerous border cities, hundreds of asylum-seekers like himself would be allowed into the US.
At first the 29-year-old Honduran national thought everyone who had been placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program and forced to wait months, if not more than a year, in the Mexican city of Matamoros would be allowed into the US. But hope quickly turned to despair when he realized that not only was his family ineligible, there was no indication if they ever would be.
As part of the initial wind-down of the so-called Remain in Mexico policy, the Biden administration has started allowing immigrants with open cases into the US, a group of about 25,000 people. After most people in the Matamoros camp were processed into the US to fight their asylum cases, Felipe said officials with the UN's refugee agency told him there were no plans at the moment to accept immigrants like him and his family, seeing as they had already lost their immigration case and subsequent appeal.
Felipe is among the more than 41,000 immigrants in MPP who have closed cases and are excluded from the current intake process. However, immigrants with closed cases and living in the Matamoros camp were allowed into the US, leaving people like Felipe and his family, who were staying in shelters or rented homes, behind.
"It's unjust. Our case was not judged the way it should've been, and yet we remain here waiting," Felipe told BuzzFeed News. "Just because the camp, which was an eyesore for the Mexican government, is gone doesn't mean we're not still suffering here."
When Felipe and his family were sent back to Mexico in July 2019 by US border officers, the Matamoros camp had yet to fully materialize, so they slept on concrete streets, hungry and braving hot summer temperatures. Nearly two years later, the uncertainty of not knowing if there will ever be a plan for people with closed Remain in Mexico cases keeps him up at night as they continue to wait inside a shelter.
"We're living with uncertainty, anxiety, stress, sadness, and tears," Felipe said.
Chris Boian, a spokesperson with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said 9,671 MPP cases, which could involve an individual or family, have registered on the agency's website to be processed into the US. Officials estimate that the figure covers about 16,776 people in total. Since Feb. 19, at least 2,260 people in MPP have been processed and allowed into the US through three ports of entry.
On Wednesday, during a congressional committee hearing, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said officials were looking at how to handle immigrants like Felipe and his family with closed MPP cases, but refused to say whether there would eventually be a plan.
"Right now we are addressing the immediate need of the southwest border," Mayorkas said, referring to the spike in unaccompanied immigrant children overwhelming US border officers.
More than 71,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers were sent to dangerous border cities under the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico policy after crossing into the US and presenting themselves to border agents for arrest. In Matamoros, their asylum hearings were conducted inside tent courts with judges streamed in via video. From the beginning, attorneys and advocates said the process wasn't fair and violated due process rights.
Of the 41,844 cases completed or closed, only 650 immigrants, or 1.5%, were granted asylum or another form of benefit that allowed them to live in the US, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which used Freedom of Information Act requests to study MPP. Of those completed or closed cases, 32,638 immigrants, including Felipe and his family, received a deportation order.
The chances of winning an asylum case are significantly higher if immigrants in MPP have attorneys, but only about 8% of those in TRAC’s data were able to get legal representation. Few attorneys are willing to cross into cities the State Department has deemed to be dangerous for US travelers, and even fewer are willing to represent immigrants with limited income on a pro bono basis. That means most immigrants and asylum-seekers are left to figure out the intricacies of complex immigration law on their own, with little success.
In June 2019, Felipe, his wife, and three children left their home in Honduras because of threats and attacks from local gangs after he refused to join them. Felipe, who was a youth pastor at his Mormon church, told gang members he couldn’t join them, in part, because it would go against his religious beliefs.
The denial led to frequent harassment and attacks on their way to church. One time, Felipe said, his pregnant wife was robbed at gunpoint. Violence in the area around his church was also intensifying, Felipe said, as a result of protests stemming from political turmoil in Honduras. Church services and events were often canceled because of the unrest, and one time the building nearly caught fire after government protesters set tires on fire right outside, he added.
After several months in Matamoros, where being kidnapped by cartels was a growing possibility, Felipe and his wife decided to send their daughters, then 10 and 6 years old, across the border alone in January 2020. He and his wife watched as they crossed the bridge and approached Border Patrol agents, who deemed them to be unaccompanied immigrant children. Felipe’s decision was one made by many other immigrant parents stuck in MPP.
All the while, the family continued attending their US asylum hearings. Felipe recalled having to wake up on the streets of Matamoros to present themselves at 4 a.m. for an 8 a.m. hearing. Bleary-eyed and nervous, Felipe and his wife tried to explain in the remote courtroom why they fled Honduras, and they struggled to correctly fill out their asylum paperwork. In January 2020, after four hearings held months apart, a judge denied their asylum claim.
"He said we had suffered, but it was not enough to merit asylum," Felipe said. "We didn't know what to do or say. My wife lost control emotionally and broke down."
They also eventually lost their appeal, but immigration attorney Amy Maldonado is working on reopening the case.
When Felipe first appealed his family's case, he was faced with the choice of pushing on without an attorney or sitting endlessly in Matamoros in the hopes of finding one. Had they postponed their appeal hearings and had an active case today they would've been eligible to be processed into the US, Maldonado said.
"Now my clients, who had been put in MPP from the beginning, have to watch all of these people who came after them be allowed into the US," Maldonado said. "The administration knows the hearings were not fair."
In addition to the thousands of immigrants in MPP still waiting to be allowed into the United States, there are thousands more who have also been waiting in northern Mexico for more than a year who aren't in the program and haven't been able to formally request asylum from the US.
Dr. Amy Cohen, cofounder and executive director of Every Last One, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that helps immigrant children and families affected by US immigration policies, said Felipe's 2-year-old son is severely developmentally delayed. She helped arrange for the toddler to see a pediatrician and a neurologist in Matamoros, but neither can do the evaluation he needs or administer treatment, Cohen said.
"If he fails to get the evaluation and treatment he requires soon … he may well deteriorate and have no way to come back from his losses," Cohen told BuzzFeed News. "When kids are delayed, they need certain kinds of treatment to stimulate that brain growth and gain skills or it may be too late."
Cohen hopes Felipe and his family will be allowed into the US under humanitarian parole because of his son's health issues. It was very unfair, she said, for people in the camp with closed cases to be allowed in while immigrants like Felipe and his family in a similar situation were not paroled into the US.
"The fact that those with closed cases are being allowed in just because they were there is so bitter, especially for people like [Felipe], who are so deserving, in such need because of his boy, and who has a case which looks for all the world like a true asylum case," Cohen said.
Austin Kocher, a research associate professor with TRAC, said a majority of the more than 41,000 immigrants with closed cases had a determination in their case made without them being present.
He believes this has less to do with an immigrant's desire to complete their cases and more to do with the barriers the Remain in Mexico program placed in their path. An attorney can make a world of difference in successfully arguing an asylum case, but MPP made it hard for immigrants to find legal representation, Kocher said.
Additionally, asylum-seekers were told to show up at ports of entry before dawn for their MPP hearings in border cities where gangs and cartels preyed on them.
"They were standing on the streets of Juarez and Matamoros at 4:30 a.m., places where people were being kidnapped and extorted," Kocher told BuzzFeed News. "MPP was about weaponizing geography to make asylum impossible."
And there's no indication from the Biden administration that the thousands of closed MPP cases will get a do-over, Kocher said.
"Or really an actual first chance," Kocher said. "This is 41,000 people who are facing violence and persecution of some kind and now have to figure out what to do."
Felipe wonders where his family would be today if they had lived at the camp instead of a shelter. Would they be reunited with their daughters? Would his son be receiving the treatment he needs?
His family had decided against living at the camp because they heard the cartel exerted a lot of power there. Instead they rented an apartment they had to leave after a few months after almost being kidnapped by men they had paid to cross them into the US in November 2020.
"We're in a worse limbo than we were before because we don't know with certainty what's going to happen to us," Felipe said. "We deserve to be heard, and we deserve to have a fair asylum hearing."