Public Citizen Defends Asylum Seekers in Mexico

Public Citizen News / September-October 2021

By David Villani

This article appeared in the September/October 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

In January 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began turning around certain non‑Mexican migrants who arrived at the United States southern border seeking asylum. DHS sent them back to Mexico to await their U.S. immigration proceedings. Among the places they were sent was the notoriously dangerous border state of Tamaulipas. Over the next two years, DHS sent to Mexico more than 70,000 non-Mexican migrants – asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, as well as Cuba and Venezuela, among others. More than 25,000 of them were sent to Tamaulipas.

The U.S. State Department has long assigned Tamaulipas a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” advisory—the highest level of warning, assigned to active-combat zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The State Department advises U.S. visitors to high-risk areas like Tamaulipas to make a will, designate a family member to negotiate with kidnappers, and establish secret questions and answers to verify that the traveler is still alive when kidnappers reach out to family members. Nonetheless, DHS dropped asylum-seekers off at locations in Tamaulipas where they were easy prey for kidnappers, and it scheduled them for immigration hearings just across the U.S. border in Texas, so that they had to live or travel through Tamaulipas in order to pursue their asylum claims.

In April 2020, in a case called Nora v. Wolf, Public Citizen, along with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of the District of Columbia, the ACLU of Texas and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, sued DHS in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to challenge this program. We represented 26 asylum seekers—12 adults and their 14 minor children—who were trapped in life-threatening conditions in Mexico while they waited for their asylum proceedings in the United States to conclude.

The 26 plaintiffs all fled violence and persecution in their home countries to seek refuge in the United States and were kidnapped or assaulted and threatened with death in Tamaulipas. They lived in daily fear for their lives, after DHS stranded them in Tamaulipas. For instance, one plaintiff was kidnapped and repeatedly gang raped in front of her son, after DHS returned them to Tamaulipas. Another plaintiff was kidnapped by cartel members who forced him into labor and threatened to traffic his three-year-old son.

“The violence and suffering that the plaintiffs experienced after being sent back to Tamaulipas was an entirely foreseeable consequence of the DHS policy,” said Allison Zieve, director of Public Citizen Litigation Group.

DHS sent migrants seeking to enter the U.S. to Tamaulipas as part of a policy that it dubbed “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP). Public Citizen’s clients challenged, among other things, DHS’s July 2019 expansion of MPP to Tamaulipas. Although DHS claimed that MPP would provide a safer and more orderly process, DHS expanded MPP into Tamaulipas without considering the dangers migrants would face there.

Through a motion for a preliminary injunction, Public Citizen and its co-counsel secured relief in 2020 for one plaintiff, whose family DHS then permitted back into the United States to pursue immigration proceedings.

Then, earlier this year, while a motion seeking relief for other plaintiffs was pending, the Biden administration began winding down the MPP program and began allowing our clients to enter the U.S. to await their immigration proceedings, safe from the rampant danger they faced in Tamaulipas. As of publication, 25 of the plaintiffs are now in the United States.

On June 1, DHS formally terminated MPP. Although some people subjected to the program are still in Tamaulipas and other dangerous parts of Mexico, many are now able to pursue asylum proceedings from the United States.

[Since this article was published, a court in Texas ordered the government to reinstate MPP. Accordingly, the final resolution of MPP is not yet certain.]