At Least 115 Asylum Cases From Trump’s ‘Remain In Mexico’ Policy Transferred To Charlotte
Jamilah Espinosa remembers it well.
The Charlotte-based immigration attorney traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019 when then-President Trump started what’s known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or "remain in Mexico" policy. It allowed the Department of Homeland Security to send asylum-seekers to Mexico while they waited on a judge’s decision.
“Lawyers for Good Government and several nonprofits were asking for attorneys to come on the ground and go to Matamoros, so we flew down to Brownsville," Espinosa said.
Matamoros is the Mexican border town directly across from the U.S. port of entry in Brownsville, Texas. There, with a group of attorneys, Espinosa set up shop at a large migrant camp that went up just yards from the border. A folding chair with a small portable tabletop attached served as her office. It was surrounded by hundreds of tents and portable toilets.
She remembers a conversation with a 6-year-old boy who used sidewalk chalk to draw what he longed for the most: a home in the United States. She recorded the conversation.
In a video, she asks him to describe what his drawings were. He describes a bridge that takes him to the United States, where he drew lots of square houses with triangle roofs. The boy told Espinosa that a large, smiling face he drew next to the chalk neighborhood meant he would be happy there.
"That really impacted me a lot, because it really is a juxtaposition," Espinosa said. "When you look, you literally can see across the border, and then you see (these migrants) living in poverty."
Espinosa and the other attorneys provided legal counseling and prepared the migrants to present their cases in court on their own. They couldn’t help them in the courtroom because these migrants couldn’t afford it, she says. And it was too risky for the visiting attorneys like herself to stay for more than a few days at a time. The cartels that ran the region watched them closely. And during her three days there, a body was found along the river that neighbored the encampment.
“The cartel basically signaled that it was time for us to go,” Espinosa said.
Two years later, she’s working with a Central American family of four living in Charlotte. They got to the border in 2019 and were denied entry and sent to wait in Mexico. Then a nonprofit helped them become one of the few MPP cases that were transferred into the U.S.
Espinosa can’t share much about their case because of attorney-client confidentiality. But she says they fled their native country because of threats from local gang members.
"(Their) family members have been murdered and tortured," she said. "And they know that if they remain, they’re next."
Through an executive order, the Biden administration has allowed nearly 4,000 people so far to enter the United States while their asylum cases are heard. The majority of the migrants are from Cuba, Honduras and Guatemala.
These cases are just a fraction of the nearly 30,000 pending MPP cases overall. The few chosen were transferred out of MPP hearing locations along the border to 63 courts across the U.S. At least 115 of those cases have been transferred to Charlotte. Here, the majority of MPP cases are for Honduran, Salvadorian and Guatemalan nationals.
But the process has stalled, says Professor Rick Su from the UNC School of Law.
“The executive order itself sort of imagined some process or certain steps that we'd be taking in order to unwind it," Su said. "And right now, we're in this strange situation where the administration has declared that they would start processing individuals that have already been registered. That's going relatively slowly.”
Espinosa, for example, says she’s received no indication or instruction from the Executive Office for Immigration Review about what or when her clients' hearings will be at the Charlotte Immigration Court.
Based on the average immigration case waiting times, it could be months before asylum-seekers know anything.
“Underlying all this is a coordination between lots of different departments of the government — but also coordination between the federal government and local governments and a network of volunteer associations and then, of course, family members," Su said. "The strain is definitely showing with regard to that degree of coordination and how much coordination is actually going on.”
In the meantime, asylum-seekers waiting for hearings in the U.S., like the family working with Espinosa, are able to get a work permit to make ends meet until a judge decides whether they can stay. Espinosa says it’s a security net and a step closer to never having to return to their native country, where their lives could be at risk.
Historically, asylum-seekers with legal representation are five times more likely to be granted asylum, according to data from Syracuse University. But, this data also shows that only a few migrants with MPP cases have access to an attorney.