A Migrant Protection Protocols enrollee questions a Border Patrol agent while waiting to be cleared for entry to Mexico on the Stanton Street bridge on Wednesday morning. Mexican officials initially denied entry to the two men because of missing paperwork. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

When the Department of Homeland Security announced details of the reimplementation of Migrant Protection Protocols, officials said the U.S. government will work with Mexican authorities to ensure “safe and secure” housing for asylum seekers enrolled in the program.

But in Ciudad Juárez, which ranked as the world’s third most dangerous city in 2020 and has ongoing issues with shelter capacity for migrants, advocates are asking how the U.S. government will be able to fulfill this pledge.

“It seems like the cart was put before the horse a little bit, and there hasn’t been the kind of preparation that was implied,” said Hannah Hollandbyrd, policy specialist at the Hope Border Institute, an El Paso-based nonprofit focused on immigrant rights. Hollandbyrd spent Tuesday touring Ciudad Juárez shelters after the restart of the program began in El Paso on Monday.

Commonly referred to as “remain in Mexico,” the controversial MPP program was first implemented during the Trump administration. It requires asylum seekers to await their date in U.S. immigration court in Mexico.

Immigrant advocacy organizations say that this central component of the MPP program violates international law because it denies asylum seekers safe refuge in the country where they are seeking asylum. The first iteration of the program, which began in 2019, was marked with widespread claims of human rights abuses against vulnerable migrants — Human Rights First documented more than 1,500 cases of murder, kidnapping, rape, torture or other violent assaults against MPP enrollees through February 2021.

Although President Joe Biden sternly criticized the program and moved to terminate it on his first day in office, a decision by a federal judge forced the Biden administration to restart the program. The Biden administration has continued to move toward eventually terminating the program, even while announcing details of its reinstatement in accordance with the court order.

A Nicaraguan man who is enrolled in Migrant Protection Protocols asks a Mexican official on Wednesday for information about what will happen to him once he enters Mexico. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued an October memorandum detailing his renewed decision to terminate the program.

“I recognize that MPP likely contributed to reduced migratory flows,” he said in the memo. “But it did so by imposing substantial and unjustifiable human costs on the individuals who were exposed to harm while waiting in Mexico.”

The new version of MPP contains additional measures to mitigate humanitarian concerns about the program raised by the Mexican and U.S. governments, including the pledge of safe shelters and “secure transportation to and from U.S. ports of entry.”

Alberto Cabezas, the communications coordinator for the International Organization for Migration in Mexico, has been in Ciudad Juárez this week overseeing preparations for the restart of MPP. IOM will facilitate transportation for MPP enrollees between the port of entry and the shelters. But Cabezas was quick to clarify that this should not be construed as IOM’s support of the MPP program itself.

“In the end, we consider MPP inhumane and against international law, and we want to stress that,” he said.

Cabezas said that while he knows that U.S. officials are “attentively following the operation,” he cannot clarify what measures have been taken in Juárez shelters in order to improve the safety and security of housing options for migrants.

U.S. officials have been vague in their responses to requests for information about Ciudad Juárez’s specific support. A State Department spokesperson confirmed that the United States is providing funding to a network of 60 shelters in Northern Mexico, but did not specify how much funding or how many shelters in Ciudad Juárez would be eligible.

Mexican immigration officials receive two Migrant Protection Protocols enrollees (center, wearing blue and gray) at the top of the Stanton Street bridge on Wednesday morning. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Cabezas said that among the 23 shelters in Ciudad Juárez that IOM monitors, there is a total capacity of 2,967 people, and that they are currently about 85% occupied. But according to James Yong, who heads the Ciudad Juárez office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, shelter capacity is still “absolutely” a concern.

“It’s a constant issue, the capacity,” said Yong, noting fluctuations in migration and the challenges of accurately describing shelter capacity.

“There’ll be shelters that have exactly 50 beds and then 70 people will show up knocking on their door and they’ll throw down spare mattresses on the ground,” he said.

Although UNHCR works with migrants and shelters in Ciudad Juárez, it does not support the MPP program or have any involvement with its reimplementation.

“UNHCR has from the start expressed its serious concerns about the MPP and its impact on asylum seekers’ safety and their due process rights,” Matthew Reynolds, a UNHCR Representative for the United States and the Caribbean, said in a Dec. 2 statement. “The announced adjustments to the policy are not sufficient to address these fundamental concerns.”

Cabezas said that despite the combined efforts of the governmental and civil society organizations working on behalf of migrants in Ciudad Juárez, some amount of danger may be unavoidable.

“We will have the people (being returned) to Mexico, which is not their country … they will be living in cities they don’t know … which have some risks for them, (like) human smugglers, difficulty to find a job, and a COVID pandemic going on,” Cabezas said. But he expressed hope that Mexican and U.S. authorities will do their best to promote humane conditions for MPP enrollees.

Mexican immigration officials and representatives from the International Organization for Migration prepare to receive Migrant Protection Protocols enrollees from the United States at the foot of the Stanton Street bridge Wednesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

But for Hollandbyrd, there is no level of humanitarian effort that would negate the fundamental nature of the program.

“At the end of the day, it’s the U.S. government’s responsibility to process these people and to respect and uphold their right to asylum, and that’s just not happening right now,” she said. “No amount of funding or tweaks to the program can change that fact.”

Cover photo: A Migrant Protection Protocols enrollee questions a Border Patrol agent while waiting to be cleared for entry to Mexico on the Stanton Street bridge on Wednesday morning. Mexican officials initially denied entry to the two men because of missing paperwork. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk reports on wide-ranging issues impacting the lives of El Pasoans. She also performs music as Ziemba. René can be reached at rkladzyk@elpasomatters.org. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.