It took up to three days and the smell of his decomposing body for staff at a shelter in Mexico to realize that an immigrant trying to get asylum in the US had died. At another shelter for people waiting to have their asylum cases heard in the US, two women didn’t return after venturing out to get medicine, and employees refused to allow their roommates to call authorities.
These are just two circumstances alleged in two letters sent to the US government by legal service providers that were obtained by BuzzFeed News. They highlight the dangerous conditions that immigrants are forced into as they wait in Mexico for their asylum cases to be adjudicated in the US. Even outside shelters, they also face violence and kidnapping by criminal organizations.
After a federal judge ordered the US to restart the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), the Biden administration said it would work closely with Mexican officials to provide "safe and secure" shelters for immigrants in the program as part of an attempt to make it more humane. But the conditions described in the letters appear to show that there’s still a long way to go before the US and Mexican governments can make good on their pledge.
The letters were written by the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) and the Vera Institute of Justice, which have been attempting to provide legal aid to immigrants in MPP from the US side of the border. The allegations about conditions inside the shelters were made by immigrants to the organizations, which haven’t been to the shelters in person.
“ProBAR’s ability to communicate has been restricted due to perceived threats from the shelter staff, safety concerns, lack of or limited availability of Wi-Fi connections, and restricted access to personal phones,” the organization said in its letter to the Biden administration.
About a week later on March 15, Vera also sent a letter with similar concerns, stating that “troubling conditions in Mexican shelters” are depriving immigrants and asylum-seekers of basic due process and putting their safety at risk. The conditions in the shelters, including lack of telephone and wifi services, render it nearly impossible to even obtain a shred of legal preparation, the organization added.
In a statement, a State Department spokesperson said the agency takes any allegation of mistreatment at shelters seriously.
"We are following up with local authorities and civil society to respond to these concerns and work together on solutions," the spokesperson said in a statement. "The Biden-Harris Administration has repeatedly stated that MPP has endemic flaws, imposed unjustifiable human costs, and pulled resources and personnel away from other priority efforts."
The MPP program, also known as Remain in Mexico, has forced more than 71,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for months — or in some cases years — while a US judge considers their cases. Earlier in 2021, the Biden administration began to undo the program by allowing thousands of people caught up in Remain in Mexico to come to the US. Then in June 2021, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas formally ended the policy, but a federal judge ordered the administration to restart it.
The dangers that immigrants face in Mexico while their cases are pending in the US aren’t new. During the first version of MPP under the Trump administration, Human Rights First counted at least 1,544 public reports of homicide, rape, and other attacks committed against people in MPP across the US–Mexico border from February 2019 to February 2021. Human Rights First has since tracked at least 9,886 reports of kidnapping, torture, rape, and other violent attacks on people blocked in or sent back to Mexico during the Biden administration.
Jeremy MacGillivray, deputy chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Mexico, said his organization works with over 120 shelters throughout the country, 96 of which are located along the northern border. IOM said it supports shelters with minor infrastructure renovations, delivery of food and non-food items, and distribution of information materials, among other aid. IOM has spoken out publicly against MPP and was involved in the Biden administration’s wind down in 2021, accompanying 13,256 people with active MPP cases to the US.
Shelters in Mexico will always struggle to keep up with the number of people at their facilities — even the federally operated ones have a hard time, MacGillivray said. The Biden administration's version of MPP is an improvement from the Trump era, but knowing the conditions and areas in which shelters operate, it's not possible to have spaces with everything immigrants and asylum-seekers need, MacGillivray said.
"Perhaps both governments created too high expectations when announcing MPP 2.0 and how it would work because these are civil society shelters and they struggle a lot," he said. "Even if they receive support from us and other NGOs and US agencies, at the end of the day… they're going to keep struggling."
According to Vera, a dead body was discovered on an unspecified date behind a shelter where immigrants in MPP are living, increasing the fear and anxiety they’re already grappling with. Immigrants also told Vera that when they leave to attend their hearings in San Diego, their space at the shelter is not guaranteed upon return.
“Therefore, migrants are being put in the position of having to decide whether they maintain their housing or seek legal relief,” Vera said in its letter.
In addition, Vera said there is no Wi-Fi available at the shelters in Tijuana and phone use is restricted by staff. As a result, Vera said it was unable to provide consistent follow-up services to immigrants and asylum-seekers between their hearings. Vera did not name the shelter in its letter.
Analysis of MPP cases shows that immigrants are more likely to win their cases if they have legal representation; however, only a small portion are able to get a lawyer due to a combination of factors, such as the cost or US attorneys not wanting to represent people in Mexico.
In the city of Ciudad Juárez, a man who had been sent back under a separate policy known as Title 42, which quickly expels undocumented immigrants to Mexico or their home country, was found dead on March 7 at a shelter operated by the Mexican government. His death upset immigrants because of how long it took for staff at the Centro Integrador para el Migrante Leona Vicario to notice he had died, according to the letter from Vera. The Mexican government did not respond to requests for comment about the death, but local media reports say the unidentified man’s death went unnoticed anywhere from more than 24 hours to up to three days.
The same Leona Vicario shelter only has one computer, which staff grants access to based on an individual’s behavior, Vera said. Computer access, in addition to phone and Wi-Fi availability, is important for immigrants who are trying to prepare for their court hearings by compiling evidence, filling out applications, or writing declarations, in addition to seeking out legal assistance.
The Department of Homeland Security has also been giving immigrants in MPP a document with an incorrect address for a shelter, Vera said. The document, a Notice to Appear (NTA), is a charging document issued by the DHS that includes information on where an immigrant must present themselves for their first court hearing, and critically, should include an address where the applicant can be contacted if the time, date, or location of the hearing is changed.
If an immigrant fails to appear at court hearings, they run the risk of being ordered deported in absentia by an immigration judge, which makes having accurate and detailed information on the forms crucial for asylum-seekers. An incorrect NTA presents a serious due process challenge to immigrants in MPP, who risk being ordered deported if they miss a hearing, Vera pointed out.
"An in-absentia order denied respondents their legal right to apply for asylum," the letter states.
In a statement, Vera said it opposed the Biden administration's decision to restart the Remain in Mexico policy because it forces immigrants fleeing violence, persecution, and death to stay in places where they face similar harms while they try to make their case in court.
"No amount of time, resources, or lawyers can make an unlawful, inhumane, and dangerous policy workable," Vera said. "Vera provides legal orientation services to people enrolled in MPP. However, our ability to provide meaningful legal services is dependent on the federal government’s ability to remove obstacles and barriers to accessing those services."
If the Biden administration is serious about ensuring access to justice and keeping families together, it must end policies such as MPP and Title 42, dismantle immigration detention, and invest those resources in legal representation for immigrants at risk of deportation, Vera added.
Vera met with Biden administration officials over the claims in the letter recently, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.
ProBAR sent a letter with many of the same concerns to the Justice Department in March, detailing concerns about three shelters in northern Mexico that were accepting immigrants in MPP. In addition to dangerous conditions, attorneys said the shelters made it difficult for immigrants and asylum-seekers to get legal aid. ProBAR declined to comment on the letter.
BuzzFeed News is not naming the three shelters at the request of ProBAR, which feared staff would retaliate against immigrants for speaking out. At one shelter, three immigrant men who left to take out money so they could afford to live on their own were kidnapped and haven’t been heard from, the letter states. The three men have since missed their MPP hearing and were ordered deported in absentia.
At another shelter, the letter to the Justice Department said, two women in MPP left to get medicine for other immigrants who were sick on Feb. 24 and never returned. When other immigrants at the shelters got worried and asked the operators to call police, the staff refused, saying they didn’t trust authorities.
ProBAR staff were also told that smugglers drop off people at the shelter, which scares those living there. Smugglers work for, or with, Mexican cartels, which kidnap, sexually assault, and kill immigrants. Clients at the shelter are only allowed to keep their cellphones from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and staff threaten to take the phones away for “bad behavior.” An immigrant woman who did not return the phone to shelter staff at night, in case something happened after the two women didn’t return it, was punished.
At that same shelter, immigrants told ProBAR that a man who works there has walked into the showers while women were naked, saying he needed to make a repair. Another time, the same man refused to leave the bathroom, which has no stall doors, even though a woman who was using a toilet asked him to leave. He only left after another woman walked in, the letter ProBAR sent to the Justice Department said.
All three shelters didn’t have private spaces for immigrants to speak with attorneys or legal aid providers, which can make it difficult for asylum-seekers to discuss details that could be crucial to them winning their cases. In general, the rules and setup at the shelters made it difficult for immigrants to access the limited legal assistance that is available to them, ProBAR said in the letter.
At one shelter, staff regularly takes away people’s cellphones and only allows them access to phones for a set amount of hours. In one case, when a ProBAR employee was trying to set up an informational session with an asylum-seeker, a shelter worker required a typed out scheduled appointment time in a text message as proof because it was outside the official hours of phone usage.
If immigrants want to use the shelter’s phone, they’re only allotted five minutes a day, the letter states. They're also not allowed to print evidence for their cases at the shelter, and if they leave, they're threatened with being kicked out. There was also insufficient Wi-Fi at the shelter to make calls, ProBAR said.
One shelter employee, who declined to give their name to BuzzFeed News when reached on the phone, said staff takes away cellphones at night because immigrants will otherwise stay up watching videos or making noise, making it impossible for others to sleep.
Savi Arvey, policy adviser for the Women’s Refugee Commission's Migrant Rights and Justice Team, said she's concerned that there are nearly insurmountable barriers for immigrants and asylum-seekers in MPP to access legal support. She went on a monitoring trip to the border and visited shelters in northern Mexico last week and said many don't have the space to provide immigrants with confidential areas to discuss their cases with attorneys. She and her team visited one shelter where there was an intermittent internet signal and lack of access to computers. This despite the Biden administration promising to provide immigrants with information on where they can speak with attorneys via phone or video when it launched the program, Arvey said.
"It makes it extremely difficult for people to have a fair opportunity to present their case in court," Arvey said. "This highlights the inability to effectively address the fundamental flaws of this program."
The State Department said the government is complying with the federal court order to reimplement MPP while also trying to address its flaws.
In Fiscal Year 2021, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), which is the humanitarian arm of the State Department, said it provided nearly $60 million in assistance for Mexico-specific programming through its partners. The funds included support for shelter, mental health, and legal assistance for asylum-seekers, refugees, and vulnerable immigrants.
The State Department also said it has contributed additional funding in Fiscal Year 2022 to support shelter and other basic needs for immigrants and asylum-seekers in Mexico.
"Our humanitarian partners are funded to respond based on humanitarian needs. They are aware of the re-implementation of MPP and the potential increase in needs," the State Department said. "They are incorporating MPP participants into existing programs and will work to mitigate humanitarian needs that arise as a result of the program's re-implementation."
MacGillivray of IOM said the organization has helped about 70 of the shelters with internet and Wi-Fi access and about 60 with smart TVs, which they hope can be used to provide information to immigrants who live there. These shelters are managed by civil society and depend on donations and grants from IOM, other UN agencies, and from the private sector, MacGillivray said.
"We can't completely change the conditions under which shelters work," he said. "They often have two to three staff for 150 to 200 people and the internet is kind of dodgy not just for the shelter, but for that neighborhood."
MacGillivray said he's heard about shelter operators who take people's cellphones at night because some immigrants stay up all night and then don't participate in duties such as cleanup or cooking. Phones are also restricted at night in some cases after instances in which criminals or smugglers attempt to enter the facility.
"They don't want people to communicate with coyotes about how many people are there, what nationalities, or give out some people's names," MacGillivray said, referring to the slang term for smugglers.
Often shelters only have one phone for 200 people, MacGillivray said, so there has to be some sort of time limit. IOM has spoken with shelters housing immigrants in MPP to explain that they need to consult with legal counsel and to help facilitate that as much as possible without disrupting the shelter dynamics, but ultimately it's each staff that decides how to manage limited resources.
"Shelters don't want to prioritize MPP migrants over other migrants because that just generates conflict," MacGillivray said.