NEW YORK — On a Dec. 20 trip visiting with migrants across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso found that little has changed with the Biden administration’s re-implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols.
The Biden administration restarted the program the week of Dec. 6 after reaching an agreement with Mexico the week before that outlined a more humanitarian system. The policy forces migrants to wait in Mexico until immigration officials rule on their asylum claims.
Critics of MPP, commonly known as the Remain in Mexico policy, have long condemned the inhumane conditions it forces migrants to endure, the time it takes for a ruling on asylum claims, and the potential danger the migrants face in vulnerable circumstances across the border.
In this iteration of the policy, the Biden administration said it would work to conclude all cases within six months of a migrant’s return to Mexico, provide eligible migrants with COVID-19 vaccinations and make sure conditions were more humane.
“Sadly no, we don’t see it that way,” Bishop Seitz, the chairman-elect of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference migration committee, told The Tablet of whether or not it appears anything has changed. “We had wanted to believe the promises too, but what we heard today anyway is that there is little difference.”
Based on the stories he heard from migrants, Bishop Seitz said “they’re still being treated like criminals” by U.S. authorities when they’re sent back to the U.S., they’re not given more secure living situations, “and they’re not being given vaccines despite those promises that were made public.”
Bishop Seitz noted that he’s still hopeful the Biden administration will stay true to its commitment to conclude cases faster, “but we’ll believe that when we see it and then we’ll also see whether it’s a process where they really have a fair opportunity to make their case for asylum.”
MPP was enacted by President Donald Trump in January 2019. President Joe Biden vowed to terminate the policy on multiple occasions. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas did so on June 1, 2021. Two months later, on August 13, a district judge in Texas ruled the Biden administration must make a “good faith” effort to reinstate the policy, which was upheld after the Supreme Court denied an emergency appeal to stay the order.
At that point re-implementing the policy hinged on cooperation from the Mexican government, which the Biden administration received through the new agreement in early December. Supporters of the policy argue it’s necessary with the record number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border this year.
On the Dec. 20 day trip to Ciudad Juárez, Bishop Seitz, alongside Hope Border Institute executive director Dylan Corbett, visited different migrant shelters across the Mexican city, spoke with migrants in MPP, and others stuck in limbo.
The first stop they made was to Casa del Migrante, a shelter operated by the Catholic Church that Bishop Seitz estimates has about 370 migrants. Most of the migrants were from Mexico, Bishop Seitz said, but there were also some from Central America and Haiti.
Some of them had already been at the shelter for five months without a clear path forward.
“They’ve lost everything in their home place. They’ve been under threat and that’s why they left so they can’t return,” Bishop Seitz said. “They can’t go forward and if they stay they’ll be staying in a place that has so many social problems right now and they will continue to be at risk.”
“That’s more and more the story that people get to Juárez and they’re stuck,” he continued. “They can’t go forward. They can’t go backward. They can’t get a work permit to work here and I think we’re going to be seeing more of that.”
The stories of the struggle migrants face across the border were consistent throughout the day trip that also included stops at two other Ciudad Juárez migrant shelters and a safe house funded by the Diocese of El Paso Border Refugee Assistance Fund.
Through the Border Refugee Assistance Fund, Bishop Seitz and Corbett delivered $40,000 in emergency humanitarian aid. The money, Bishop Seitz said, will go towards buying Chicken Pox vaccines because many migrants aren’t vaccinated against it, purchasing COVID-19 testing and treatments, safe house operations, and getting security cameras for one shelter.
Going forward, after a year of little change to immigration policy, Bishop Seitz said the important thing now is to lean on Jesus “to change people’s hearts” because “unless we help people in our country to have a change of heart we’re not going to be able to put policy in place.”