TIJUANA, Mexico — Maria del Carmen Perez is stuck in what she calls an impossible situation.
The 40-year-old single mother of two has been living in a Tijuana migrant shelter since April. She’s one of more than 15,000 asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico while waiting for their immigration cases to be resolved under the Migrant Protection Protocols program, known as “Remain in Mexico.”
Perez’s next hearing is Aug. 10. In the meantime, she can’t do much more than wait.
That’s because she cannot legally work in Tijuana. Even if she could work legally, she cannot leave her two sons alone in the shelter.
“Right now, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.
Perez and the 5,300 other asylum-seekers in Tijuana — plus another 3,100 in Mexicali — are being forced to wait indefinitely in a strange and hostile country without stable housing or a source of income while their asylum claims move through an immigration court system bogged down by a heavy caseload.
“Asylum proceedings are notoriously difficult,” said Monika Langarica, staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “People seeking asylum are vulnerable people. What this does is it forces those already vulnerable migrants into dangerous and impossible situations. They end up risking homelessness, they are subject to danger, they struggle to support themselves and their families.”
Faced with these obstacles, some of the asylum-seekers are giving up.
Friday morning at the Tijuana shelter where Perez and her sons are living, a Guatemalan migrant decided to go back home. Others opt to pursue an asylum claim in Mexico or try to cross into the U.S. illegally without getting caught.
The absence of those who abandoned their case is felt in immigration courts where their immigration cases are closed because migrants don’t show up.
Court observers are noticing a growing number of Migrant Protection Protocols cases where asylum-seekers do not appear before the judge.
“There were a number of days where maybe half the docket didn’t appear,” said Kennji Kizuka, senior researcher and policy analyst for the nonprofit Human Rights First.
Kizuka spends several days in Tijuana, Mexicali and San Diego monitoring the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, program. Apart from the safety risks, he noted the lack of access to work permits, daycare and stable housing options as some of the main obstacles for asylum-seekers who were returned to Mexico.
“I don’t think we met anyone who had received a work permit through the MPP program,” he said. “The vast majority of people we met were not working. Either they didn’t feel safe going out or, because they didn’t have authorization, they didn’t think they could find work.”
State officials from Baja California said migrants who have been returned to Mexico are welcome to get a work permit by applying for humanitarian visas. However, that message is not being communicated to asylum-seekers or advocates who work with them.
South of El Paso, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, officials there announced Friday that they will offer asylum-seekers returned to Mexico under MPP a temporary work permit. There is no such program in Baja California.
Even though she doesn’t have a work permit, Perez found a job in a kitchen. It paid $13 a day minus $3 for transportation costs. However, the shelter only lets her work three days a week because they don’t want mothers leaving their children unattended.
When Perez told the kitchen she could only work three days a week, she said they fired her.
“It’s very difficult because I have two kids and I can’t leave them alone here,” she said.
The longer people stay in Tijuana the more wary they become about their precarious housing situation.
In the Madre Asunta shelter for women and children, where Perez lives, there are concerns about how long the asylum-seekers will be able to stay.
Traditionally, Tijuana’s shelters are temporary pit-stops for migrants heading north or deportees adjusting to life in Mexico. But in this case, some of the asylum-seekers have to wait for August, September and even November court dates.
Josefina Sales Gregorio, 26, an asylum-seeker from Guatemala who has been there for three months, heard a rumor that the shelter might ask some of the families who have been there the longest to leave. Her next court hearing is August 10.
“It might be better to return to my country,” she said.
Gregorio is afraid that her 3-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter are being bullied in the shelter.
But going home isn’t an option for everyone. Many of these asylum-seekers left home because their lives were threatened by gang members.
Bani Perez, 32, fled Guatemala after a gang burned down her business for refusing to pay an extortion fee and then kidnapped her 15-year-old son in December. She has not seen or heard from her son since.
“I can’t go back to Guatemala,” she said.
She arrived to Tijuana on May 3 and has a court hearing scheduled for Aug. 8.
As these migrants struggle, groups in the United States are trying to stop the policy that forces them to return to Mexico.
The Trump administration initiated the pilot program at San Ysidro in January as a response to the number of asylum-seekers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“The Department of Homeland Security is exercising its statutory authority to help alleviate this humanitarian and security crisis and secure our nation,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said of the program when it launched. “We appreciate the Department of Justice’s support and partnership throughout this process.”
In February the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center challenged the policy in court, claiming the Trump administration had not sufficiently considered the dangers that immigrants face in Mexico. A federal judge temporarily halted the program in April but a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals jutdge granted the federal government’s request for a stay, allowing the program to continue until a final decision is made on the case.
A union representing federal asylum officers said recently the MPP program is “fundamentally contrary to the moral and fabric of our Nation.”
“By forcing a vulnerable population to return to a hostile territory where they are likely to face persecution, the MPP abandons our tradition of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and violates our international and domestic legal obligation,” the union wrote in an amicus brief to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
But while MPP is still in place, migrants like Perez will simply wait in Tijuana hoping to stay in their shelters long enough for their next day in court.
“I tell my kids to behave because they could kick us out if there are problems,” she said.