Ciudad Juárez, Mexico — Elizabeth knew something was wrong the moment she and her friend were peeled away from the rest of the group and put on a bus without explanation.
The other 50-plus women didn’t seem to notice; they were too busy collecting their shoes and looking at their cellphones after several days in migrant detention. But Elizabeth and Liseth sat alone on a bus, holding a stack of legal papers on their laps, unsure what would happen next.
As the bus pulled away, Elizabeth looked out the window and her fears were confirmed: They were heading back over the bridge, “against the arrows.”
“They never told us we were going back to Mexico,” Elizabeth said. “They never said MPP. They only asked me if I was afraid of being sent back to Mexico, and I told them yes.”
Liseth, a single mother from Matagalpa, says she was slower to catch on.
“I never knew I was going back to Mexico, even when we got on the bus,” Liseth remembers through tears. “They decided to send only the two of us back here, and we still don’t know why.”
Now the Nicaraguan women are staying in a women’s shelter in Ciudad Juárez, awaiting their first asylum hearing in the United States on March 29. They’re thankful for the Catholic-run shelter that took them in off the streets in a dangerous foreign land, but they live in fear of the world outside their doors.
“I’m honestly scared to go outside,” Liseth says. “If I remain locked in my room, I’m OK. But this isn’t any way to live.”
Elizabeth and Liseth are part of President Joe Biden’s bizarre reboot of Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a controversial immigration program known more commonly as “Remain in Mexico.” The two Nicaraguan mothers are thought to be the only women enrolled in the entire program. Although MPP wasn’t designed exclusively for men, the U.S. government has only been enrolling men in the program since rebooting it last year — until, that is, Elizabeth and Liseth were put on the bus and driven back to Mexico last month.
Mexican immigration authorities who monitor the bridge in Juárez every day tell us they haven’t seen any other women sent back to Mexico under MPP. The women’s shelter says it hasn’t seen any other migrant women enrolled in MPP since the pandemic.
Still, Elizabeth and Liseth do share something in common with most other migrants unwittingly enrolled in MPP: They’re Nicaraguan.
Nearly 60% of all migrants returned to Mexico under Biden’s MPP 2.0 are from Nicaragua — a shockingly disproportionate number that nobody has been able to explain clearly.
There is some speculation that Nicaragua’s unequal representation in MPP could be the price to pay for other Nicaraguan asylum-seekers being allowed into the country at a much higher rate than other Central Americans. Most Nicaraguan asylum-seekers are released into the United States under parole, and are allowed to stay with family or friends while they make their case before a judge. So it could be that U.S. immigration officials are trying to compensate for Nicaragua’s unspoken fast pass by making other Nicas suffer under MPP. But it’s just speculation at this point; it’s not stated policy.
“I haven’t heard a good explanation,” says Manuel Orozco, an immigration expert at Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. “But I don’t think the U.S. Congress will be happy to know the number of nicas” enrolled in MPP.
Mexican authorities are equally puzzled about what Uncle Sam is up to.
“The one constant with the United States is that there are no explanations and no rules,” says Santiago Gonzalez, director of Juárez’s human rights office.
But nobody is more confused than the Nicaraguans stuck in the middle.
“It’s like the immigration agents closed their eyes and randomly selected someone by chance to put in MPP,” a Nicaraguan migrant identified as Joaquín told us in Juárez. “They told me, ‘You’re going to be returned to Mexico. You get the benefit of the MPP program.’ But I don’t see any benefit to this. We still don’t know why we were selected. There were 75 migrants in our detention group, and only three of us — all Nicaraguans — were put in MPP.”
Josué, another Nicaraguan migrant returned to Mexico at the same time, says his selection was even more random.
“It was like they used tweezers to randomly pull my file from a stack of 750 migrants. They told me I get the benefit of getting put in the famous MPP program. In reality, that means putting my life in danger by putting me in a vulnerable situation at risk of death.”
Both men insist they have family members in the United States who were willing to sponsor their paroles, which is how most asylum-seekers enter the country to await their hearings. But for whatever reason, neither man was given that option.
How is MPP still a thing?
Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) were started in 2019 under then-President Donald Trump. The idea, in theory, was to use Mexico as an overflow waiting room for migrants applying for asylum in the United States.
In practice, the Remain in Mexico program was designed to be a deterrent — a perilous foriegn limbo that would discourage Central American immigrants from making the journey in the first place. While Mexican authorities scrambled to increase their shelter infrastructure for the influx of homeless migrants, tent camps sprung up under bridges as migrants tried to circle the wagons against the looming threat of gang extortion, kidnappings, and all types of organized criminal groups preying on the vulnerable population.
For many of the 69,000 migrants sent back to Mexico during Trump’s administration, MPP was a one-way ticket out of the United States. According to the American Immigration Council, only 521 migrants of the 42,012 MPP asylum hearings held between 2019-2020 were granted asylum in the U.S., thanks — in good part — to the fact that only 7% had access to legal counsel.
Once the coronavirus pandemic started, the number of MPP admissions dropped to 0% as Trump suspended all asylum hearings, trapping tens of thousands of people waiting in Mexico in immigration purgatory. The Biden administration inherited the broken system, but has not made it better. On the contrary, the U.S. immigration court backlog has grown bigger than ever, reaching some 1.6 million cases at the beginning of this year.
Biden campaigned on the promise of ending MPP on Day 1, but it hasn’t been that easy. His government initially paused the program last year, but a Texas federal judge ordered the president to restart the program in August. Biden dragged his feet for a couple months, then slowly rebooted the program last December, while at the same time fighting to terminate it in the Supreme Court.
The result has been an oddball, half-hearted rollout at less than half the border crossings where Trump implemented the program. Instead of returning hundreds of migrants every day under MPP (Juárez alone was once receiving 200 MPP arrivals every morning), the Biden administration is only sending half a dozen people across the bridge at a time.
MPP doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose anymore, other than complying with a court order. Mexican immigration officials in Juárez say MPP is implemented so sparingly it’s lost its deterrent effect.
Now the U.S. government relies mostly on Title 42, a Covid-era immigration policy that is so ugly it almost makes MPP look good in comparison. Title 42 has effectively blocked more than 1 million migrants at the Mexican border without any legal process — it’s just a kick in the pants. In that sense, migrants who get bounced under Title 42 are often envious of those with MPP because at least they have a court hearing and a chance at asylum, according to Nicaraguans with MPP. Those bounced under Title 42 have nothing, not even legal status in Mexico.
But Title 42 might soon be coming to an end. The Biden administration is reportedly contemplating terminating the pandemic-era program as early as next month. It’s unclear what that might mean for the future of MPP, or whether Biden will try to ramp up the program while at the same time fighting it in court.
So as you can see, not much is clear about anything. Those stuck in the program looking out are just as confused about MPP as those on the outside looking in. While the government does have some protocols and procedures in writing, the implementation of the program seems to be entirely arbitrary, and focused mostly on Nicaraguans and Venezuelans.
Those who might have answers aren’t talking.
Confidencial reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection for comment on MPP, but neither office replied.
The Fear is Real
The facts are confusing, but the fear and desperation are real.
“When they put me into MPP, I felt totally demoralized after everything I went through. I fled a country where I’m not allowed to talk just to get sent to a country where I can’t go outside,” says Nicaraguan MPP enrollee Joaquin, who says he lives in fear after a Nicaraguan woman in his travel group was kidnapped in southern Mexico.
“We’re basically prisoners in the shelter,” he says. “We can’t go out and I don’t even want to go out. Honestly Mexico frightens me. We have a price on our heads as migrants — $7,000. My family doesn’t have $7,000, so I have to remain inside the shelter 24/7.”
His friend Josué feels the same way.
“My family doesn’t have $7,000 either. We don’t even have money to pay for a lawyer,” he says. “I fled [Nicaragua] to escape insecurity and find refuge in a democratic country where there is security, and instead they sent me to another country where I have to suffer. For me, the American dream doesn’t exist.”
When I asked the two men if they have any regrets about leaving Nicaragua, they can only shake their heads.
“If I remained in Nicaragua, my future would be in jail,” says Joaquín. “So what are my options? In one country I risk my freedom, and in the other I am risking my life. My only option is to continue forward and make it into the United States, because I can’t go home and I can’t stay here.”
Cindy Regidor and Alicia Fernández contributed to this report. Read Cindy Regidor's companion piece in Spanish.