Jun 22, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Trump-era Remain in Mexico program under new scrutiny

A Remain in Mexico protester in front of the Supreme Court

A demonstrator protests against the Remain in Mexico policy outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A migrant woman tried to take her own life this month while waiting in a shelter in Monterrey, Mexico, for a U.S. asylum decision — the first known suicide attempt of Joe Biden's presidency under the Trump-era "Remain in Mexico" program he was forced to restart, Axios has learned.

What we're watching: Biden officials are awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision they hope will allow them to end a program that advocates say places migrants at risk. The ruling could come as soon as tomorrow.

The big picture: "[S]ituations like this highlight the endemic flaws" of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson told Axios.

  • While the administration has said it would improve protections for enrollees in MPP, this incident reflects the stresses migrants still endure while waiting — and holes in a system intended to catch red-flag cases.

Between the lines: MPP is one of several Trump-era immigration policies that Biden had tried to disband — such as the Title 42 public health order — but kept in place due to court intervention or potential backlash from within his party.

By the numbers: So far, at least 5,600 asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico since the MPP program was forced to restart in December, according to the UN International Organization for Migration's (IOM) count, provided to Axios.

  • By comparison, the Trump administration returned about 70,000 asylum seekers to Mexico to wait out court hearings between the start of MPP in January 2019 and the program's suspension after Biden took office.

Details: The woman who attempted suicide has since been treated in a hospital and brought into the U.S. under medical parole, according to an internal U.S. document viewed by Axios.

  • The woman had a history of mental health issues, including previously attempting suicide, Jeremy MacGillivray, deputy chief at IOM Mexico, told Axios.
  • MacGillivray said screening protocols in the U.S. should be strengthened to prevent people with similar mental health situations from being forced into the program.
  • It was not immediately known what migration path the woman had taken to seek entry at the U.S.-Mexico border.

What they're saying: "DHS is aware of this incident and acted quickly to remove the individual from MPP once notified of the situation," a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson told Axios.

  • "While DHS is committed to mitigating the harms associated with MPP as much as possible, situations like this highlight the endemic flaws that Secretary Mayorkas identified with MPP in his termination memos."
  • "As required by a court order, DHS is reimplementing MPP in good faith while appealing that court order."

What we're hearing: The news of the attempted suicide rattled other women in the shelter who messaged trusted advocates to share their concerns.

  • "It really shows the psychological damage that this program inflicts on people," one advocate familiar with the situation told Axios on the condition of anonymity.
  • The news comes as Reuters reports three other asylum seekers placed in the MPP program were kidnapped in April.

How we got here: President Biden has been forced by the courts to resume MPP after ending the controversial Trump-era program in February 2021.

  • The policy has been lambasted by Democrats, international organizations such as IOM and immigration advocates for putting migrants at risk.
  • As it continues efforts to end MPP, the Biden administration has promised to make the program safer. It has used MPP less aggressively than the previous administration, offered vaccines and exempted some vulnerable migrants.
  • Still, some migrants placed in the program continue to face physical and psychological danger.

Asylum seekers recently placed into the program are being sent to several shelters in Monterrey more than any other city — often transferred by IOM from other cities closer to the border such as Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros.

  • Conditions at the shelters vary, according to Savitri Arvey, a policy adviser for the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, who recently visited the shelters.
  • Arvey told Axios she met a handful of asylum seekers who should have been exempt and never sent back to Mexico, according to recent guidance.

The bottom line: "People on MPP we serve suffer from anxiety, stress, and a sense of hopelessness, and often, helplessness," said Blanca Lomeli, director of the Mexican branch of the refugee group HIAS, which provides mental health and other services to migrants throughout Mexico.

  • "The reality is that the prolonged stay in Mexico is negatively impacting their mental health," Lomeli added,

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

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