Migrant Protection Protocols Quietly Expands To Big Bend Sector

By Carlos Morales

A controversial Trump administration policy requiring some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases progress through U.S. immigration courts has now expanded to the Big Bend Sector — a remote but sprawling 500-mile stretch of the Texas-Mexico border.

Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — sometimes referred to as “Remain in Mexico” — was officially rolled out earlier this year in California and soon expanded to major border cities in Texas such as El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville, and — just this month — Eagle Pass

The move to expand the policy to the Big Bend Sector began in August, according to the sector’s chief, Matthew Hudak. In an interview with Marfa Public Radio, Hudak said migrants selected for MPP in the Big Bend Sector are sent to El Paso where they’re processed, and then are sent to Mexico to wait out their asylum claims.

The Presidio Station is one of a handful of locations in the sprawling, 513-mile stretch of border covered by the Big Bend Sector, where Migrant Protection Protocols was rolled out in August. (GABRIEL C. PÉREZ / KUT)

Earlier this summer, Customs and Border Protection considered releasing some detained migrants locally in the City of Presidio. Immigration authorities said they decided against the move and instead began implementing MPP locally as a way to stem the number of migrants at the border in Far West Texas. 

In the month MPP has been practiced in the region, Big Bend Sector Chief Hudak estimates some 200 migrants have been transferred to the El Paso Sector. 

“So we’ve had limited numbers of that, but we’re seeing success from [using migrant protection protocols], and I think across the board we’re seeing value in [MPP] as well,” Hudak says. 

Since the policy was rolled out, the number of MPP immigration cases held each month has continued to grow. In July, there were 3,425 held in El Paso, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Now, migrants that qualify for MPP in the Big Bend sector will add to that growing backlog. This week — in an apparent effort to ease the logjam of asylum cases — the federal government opened tent courts in Laredo, where judges hold hearings via video teleconference.

El Paso immigration lawyer Taylor Levy says while the expansion of MPP in the Big Bend means qualifying migrants will now be absorbed into immigration proceedings in El Paso, it will also mean they have a slight chance at resources that are otherwise unavailable in this isolated stretch of the border.

“At least, [in El Paso] they’re in a place where they have a chance of some advocacy and attorney services,” says Levy, who estimates a small percentage of migrants who qualified for MPP in El Paso end up actually receiving representation.

“But at leas there’s some hope [in El Paso],” Levy says. “Because if they were to do court in Ojinaga, Presidio — yeah, it’s never going to happen.”

From the start of the year until now, the government estimates more than 42,000 migrants have been sent to Mexico through MPP. There, As thousands of migrants wait out their claims, immigrant rights advocates say they can face extortion and violence and they’re left without access to legal services they would otherwise have in the U.S.

But the federal government has lauded the Trump administration policy, calling it a “game-changer.”

“It discourages the abuse and exploitation of U.S. laws and non-meritorious or false asylum claims,”  Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said during a press conference.

Morgan also credited MPP as a driving force behind the dip in apprehension numbers along the southern border last month. 

CBP says the number of migrants who were either apprehended or surrendered to immigration officials at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped by 22% in August. 

All but two of the nine sectors that make up the 2,000-mile stretch of the country’s border with Mexico saw a drop. Only the Big Bend Sector and the El Centro Sector in California saw increases. From July to August, apprehensions in the Big Bend increased by 123.

The remote Big Bend Sector, which covers more than 510-miles of the Texas-Mexico border, typically sees the least activity along the entire U.S. border. But earlier this summer, the region began to see an increase in migrant crossings.

Although MPP is now rolled out in the Big Bend Sector, it’s unclear what impact a seperate Trump Administration policy will now have on migrants who qualify for it here and at other areas of the border.

This week, the Supreme Court temporarily upheld a policy requiring migrants to first seek asylum in another country they pass through before reaching the U.S. It’s uncertain how this specific policy will affect migrants who didn’t first claim asylum in a different country, but already have their immigration court dates scheduled through MPP. 

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