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In Ciudad Juárez, shelters already strained beyond capacity brace for MPP reinstatement

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Esperanza Para Todos on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez needs more beds. It needs portable toilets and showers, too.

Like many of the shelters in Ciudad Juárez, Esperanza Para Todos is straining to keep up with the growing needs of the migrant population in this Mexican border city, shelter director Grissel Ramirez said.

Now, with the news that the Biden administration must reinstate the controversial Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols, Ramirez and other advocates are concerned about how Ciudad Juárez will be able to accommodate growing numbers of migrants. 

“I have people (staying at the shelter) who have been in MPP for two years,” Ramirez said in Spanish. “So imagine if they reopen MPP, I think we would have trouble with the excess of people. There would not be enough capacity in the shelters.”

Grissel Ramírez stands outside the migrant shelter she founded with personal savings four months ago. Overall, shelter space is near capacity in Juárez and may continue to rise with the prolongation of Title 42 and reinstatement of Migrant Protection Protocols. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The MPP policy, also called “Remain in Mexico,” requires that most asylum seekers wait in Mexico until their hearings in American immigration court. 

President Biden rescinded the program on his first day in office but a U.S. district court judge ruled last month that the Biden administration must reinstate the program; the U.S. Supreme Court then upheld that ruling in late August. The program’s termination was “arbitrary and capricious,” according to a lawsuit filed by Texas and Missouri against the Biden administration in the spring.

Across the board, Ciudad Juárez’s shelters already largely exceed their total capacities — far beyond the 50-60% recommended capacity level for COVID-19 and exceeding their maximum 100% capacity, said Bryant Castro, head of the Ciudad Juárez office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

“And (our concerns about the reinstatement of MPP are) more broad than just shelter capacity, it’s overall assistance to a population that’s very vulnerable,” Castro said. 

There are 22 shelters for migrants in Ciudad Juárez and Ciudad Chihuahua. The facilities housed more than 2,200 people as of late July, the most recent available figure, according to Alberto Cabezas, spokesperson for the International Organization of Migration Mexico, which is tasked with monitoring the shelters. Cabezas said that among those migrants, nearly 40% were children and adolescents. 

There are many ways that people end up at the shelters in Ciudad Juárez: some have been waiting to be processed under the previous iteration of MPP, some were expelled under Title 42, a provision of public health law that was utilized during the Trump administration as a way to rapidly expel asylum seekers at the border in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Title 42 expulsions into Ciudad Juárez have occurred both with migrants apprehended in the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez area, and with migrants flown to El Paso from other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. Others have arrived in Ciudad Juárez from the south, including from other states in Mexico where cartel violence has pushed families out of their homes, Cabezas said. 

“Everyone migrates for a reason, a strong reason. It is not easy to put your whole life in a suitcase and leave,” said Ramirez, urging others to have empathy for the migrants staying at the shelters. 

Anxiety, uncertainty over what a reinstated MPP will look like

President Biden has strongly denounced MPP and described the program during his presidential campaign as tantamount to “(slamming) the door shut in the face of families fleeing persecution and violence.”

During the Trump administration, more than 70,000 asylum seekers were sent back to Mexico to await their day in immigration court. That day may still be in the distant future for many: as of August 2021, there was a backlog of 1.5 million pending cases in U.S. immigration courts, according to a database maintained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

After Biden suspended the program, he initiated a process where migrants enrolled in MPP could cross the border and wait for their court dates in the United States. Since then, more than 13,000 people have crossed into the U.S. through the MPP drawdown, said Cabezas. But 3,500 people are still enrolled in MPP, he said. 

Ciudad Juárez has been “the epicenter” of the MPP drawdown process, Castro said. Over 5,600 people have crossed from Ciudad Juárez through that process, he said. The UNHCR did not support or participate in the initial MPP program implementation, but did help in the rollback of the program, spokesperson Silvia Garduno said.

Since then, the administration and the Department of Homeland Security have been quiet about what a revived MPP will look like in practice. Shortly after the ruling was announced, DHS issued a statement saying that the agency will “comply with the order in good faith” while continuing to “vigorously challenge” it.

When asked for additional information about the statement, DHS spokesperson Eduardo Maia Silva said in an email: “I don’t have more to share at this time.”

Edith, right, volunteers in the kitchen of the migrant shelter where she lives in order to distract herself from her depression and trauma. She left Honduras with her children who were being threatened by gangs, but ended up sending them into the United States alone while she stayed behind in Mexico. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Biden administration has considered a new version of the program termed “remain in Mexico lite” that would involve better living conditions and greater access to attorneys, according to Politico. Statements from federal officials about plans for MPP in recent days have been vague. “We’re planning to implement the program while we litigate the ruling,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during an interview with “CBS Evening News” on Sept. 7.

But beyond that, specific information regarding plans for the reimplementation has been minimal and border advocates are left wondering what they should do to prepare.

“We’ve been in touch as recently as a couple days ago with people from DHS and from the White House and really (we’ve received) no additional information,” Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute, said during a Sept. 3 interview. He has received no updated information as of Sept. 13.

Until recently, Hope Border Institute had helped the migrants processed under the MPP drawdown as they arrived in the United States. “I think it’s going to be a bit of a monster to restart, and I think they’re probably also thinking about different iterations,” he said.

The Biden administration has a great deal of discretion when it comes to what degree they reimplement MPP, and a central question for that determination will be the Mexican government’s willingness to go along with the plan, said Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute.

“The statements we’ve seen coming from Mexican officials seem like they are not going to put up much of a fight to reinstituting MPP,” Bolter said. “Although they seem to want some sort of slightly more scaled down version and also want the Biden administration to commit to development assistance as a form of immigration management.”

But Bolter said even an “MPP lite” version that includes greater assistance and housing for migrants would still place those forced to wait in Mexico for U.S. asylum hearings in danger.

As of February 2021, there were more than 1,500 reported  cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping and other violent assaults against migrants enrolled in the MPP program, according to Human Rights First.  

Because of these humanitarian concerns, a chorus of lawmakers have urged the Biden administration to permanently end the program. 

COVID-19 at the shelters in Ciudad Juárez

For Ramirez at the Esperanza Para Todos shelter, worries about increased numbers of migrants combine with frustrations about the lack of support for the migrants already at her shelter. Ramirez’s shelter is one of the few that accepts COVID positive migrants, which presents additional logistical challenges for the space.

“The problem is that the American authorities are not doing anything,” she said. “There are people that cross, they are detained, they put them in hieleras for one or two days and then they send them back here, in El Paso. Including people who cross at other ports, they put them on a plane and they bring them to El Paso.” (Hieleras, literally iceboxes, is a slang term used for temporary holding facilities that Customs and Border Protection operates on the border and a reference to extreme cold temperatures that migrants have reported who have stayed in them; CBP has denied those allegations.)

A family from El Salvador who has tested positive for COVID-19 stays in an isolated area within a shelter in Anapra. Grissel Ramírez, the founder and director of the shelter, said she believes some migrants contract COVID when Border Patrol transports them by plane or bus to El Paso from other border areas. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Cabezas said that IOM data shows that 6% of migrants expelled to Ciudad Juárez have confirmed positive COVID-19 cases at the time of arrival, but that 30% arrive to Ciudad Juárez with symptoms of COVID after being in U.S. immigration custody. He said that because migrants are placed on airplanes without social distancing requirements, the COVID-19 positivity rate can increase dramatically after they arrive in Ciudad Juárez.

“There is nowhere to put these people that are (COVID) positive,” Ramirez said. What’s known as “the filter hotel,” where COVID-19 positive migrants can stay to quarantine, is “completely saturated,” she said.

Karina Breceda, former shelter director of the San Juan shelter in Ciudad Juárez and program director for New Wave Feminists, a Ciudad Juárez-based migrant advocacy organization, is currently looking for a new space to function as a shelter specifically for COVID-positive migrants.

She is in the negotiation process for a large building that was formerly the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez, a coincidence she described as ironic.

Karina Breceda stands outside the vacant building that could be the site of a new migrant shelter in Juárez. Space at shelters throughout Juárez is limited as many migrants, including those who crossed into the United States at other areas of the border, continue to be expelled through El Paso into Juárez. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Matters Paso)

“My idea was to have this giant overflow center where we could place people there until spaces open up at (other) shelters, so we’re not scrambling at 12, one in the morning to find a space,” she said. Breceda said her biggest fear is that Ciudad Juárez would end up with a tent encampment for migrants similar to those that have been erected in other border cities. She described that as the “worst case scenario,” and an offense to migrants’ dignity.

Breceda said if they are successful in confirming the former consulate building as a shelter site, it would have a capacity of 300 to 400 under normal circumstances, or 110 to 120 for COVID-positive migrants. Although she said the upfront costs would be significant, it’s better than what her organization is doing now: renting hotel rooms for migrants when there isn’t space anywhere else.

“Between leaving this mom in the street with her baby soaking wet and (getting) the hotel, it seems like we need it, not even an expense, it’s a necessary cost,” she said.

Corrie Boudreaux contributed reporting to this story.

Cover photo: Everilda, 27, a migrant from Guatemala, sits with her 2-year-old daughter in a shelter in Anapra. Everilda crossed into the United States near the Reynosa-McAllen border, but was sent by plane to El Paso and then expelled to Juárez without being told where she was going. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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