TEXAS, USA — By the time the United States on Monday launched Uniting for Ukraine, a sponsor program for Ukrainian refugees to be able to come and stay for two years, thousands have crossed the U.S. border at the ports of entry with Mexico, previously closed to most other asylum-seekers.
Human rights advocates have celebrated the U.S. acceptance of Ukrainians running from a brutal war waged by Russia. But they have also questioned why this path to get asylum was only available to a few.
“We stand 100% behind President Biden and the administration in welcoming people from Ukraine to make sure they are safe and protected,” said Guerline Jozef, cofounder and executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, a human rights nonprofit focusing on immigrants of African descent, from the Caribbean and the Afro-Latinx community. “Why is it that when people are fleeing extreme conditions, if they are Black or brown, their humanity is denied, their protection is denied, their survival is denied?”
Representative Lou Correa (D), from California, raised this topic Wednesday with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandra Mayorkas, during the latter’s testimony in front of the House Homeland Security Committee.
“Mister secretary, that is in the American tradition of opening our doors to those that are being persecuted, fleeing violence and war,” Rep. Correa said. “That's what we should do. But it should not be limited just to Ukrainians, Russians, but it should be a blanket policy for the rest of the world. We need those workers.”
“It has been a horrible experience.”
It’s been three years since Dora, originally from Guatemala, asked the U.S. for asylum.
“If I hadn’t come, I’m sure I would’ve been killed,” she told KENS 5.
Dora, who’s currently stuck in Mexico, doesn’t feel safe. She asked us not to use her last name and we didn’t show her face on camera.
Dora told us she came in 2019. At the time, she hadn’t heard about the “remain in Mexico” program, otherwise known as the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP.)
“I told myself, ‘I’m leaving, I’ll ask for asylum because I have to flee my country.’ I didn’t know absolutely anything about MPP, or the laws or anything like that,” she said. “It has been a horrible experience.”
The remain in Mexico program is a Trump-era effort that’s still in place under the Biden administration, but on a much smaller scale. Enrollees are asked to wait for their U.S. asylum court date in Mexico or anywhere else, but not the U.S.
As a result, human rights advocates say, migrant camps grew on the Mexico side of the border with the United States, with people waiting for their chance to get in. There, migrants have been vulnerable to rape, murder, kidnappings.
Advocates have documented numerous cases where MPP enrollees were kidnapped on their way to their U.S. court hearing and weren’t able to make it. Immigration attorneys have told KENS 5 that once an enrollee doesn’t show to their court date, migrants receive an order of deportation on their records. A judge would automatically grant that, if people didn’t show up, in effect making refugees ineligible for asylum for 10 years.
Dora told KENS 5 she was able to make it to her first court hearing but missed her second one, because she was just released by her kidnappers. She was terrified to go outside.
“I felt like I was going to die,” she told KENS 5, crying. “I begged them for my life.”
Since Dora missed court, she lost the ability to apply for asylum. The U.S. government doesn’t provide many choices here, according to immigration attorneys. That’s why, years later, Dora is still in Mexico, hoping a pro bono attorney might get her case reopened.
Limited resources, fewer options
Dora is not the only one in this situation. There are estimated to be thousands of people enrolled in MPP during the Trump presidency who missed their court dates through no fault of their own and are in legal limbo.
“Someone without an attorney in Mexico with very limited resources, who does not speak English, who does not have access to an international courier service where they could mail paperwork—there's just simply no way someone in that situation would possibly be able to file a motion to reopen,” said Nico Palazzo, an immigration attorney who works with asylum-seekers for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. “So practically speaking, they are left with essentially no resources.”
“We are a country that is against having Black and brown people coming into the United States,” Jozef added.
She watched this play out in Texas in September of 2021.
“Over 14,000 to 15,000 people who were under the bridge in Del Rio have been deported,” Jozef said, referring toa situation where an estimated 15,000, mostly Haitian migrants crossed the Rio Grande and gathered in Del Rio under an international bridge, waiting to be processed by immigration authorities.
“It wasn't the fact people you know – the government, President Biden, the administration – could not support the Black people and the U.S.-Mexico border; they chose not to,” Jozef said.
Jozef told KENS 5 only a few migrants were allowed to stay and work through the immigration process in the United States.
“We want middle America to understand that those people are people who are in need just like you and I, people who are literally carrying their babies, carrying their children in search of safety and protection,” she said.
“It's been really wonderful to see the government step up and help Ukrainians in their time of need,” said Lindsay Gray, CEO of VECINA, a nonprofit that mentors and educates attorneys and other volunteers to represent vulnerable immigrant communities. “What this has shown us is that the government can, when the political will is there, welcome people with dignity and humanity and get them processed quickly into the country.”
“And there are many people from many countries that are fleeing persecution and conflict in search of safety, that are now stuck at the southern border in inhumane conditions and are unable to seek asylum in the United States,” Gray said.
Dora continues to wait in Mexico, hoping to someday see her family in New York. She says she has no other option.
“I can’t go back to my country,” she said.
As a result of an ongoing conflict in Cameroon, DHS officials recently announced people already in the U.S. are eligible to stay for a period of time.
KENS 5 repeatedly asked the White House, DHS, and Customs and Border Protection for a comment on this story. None of those governmental agencies provided us one.
Since the government implemented the sponsor program for Ukrainian refugees this week, authorities have reportedly stopped processing them at the ports of entry with Mexico. There’ve been reports of Ukrainians being stranded at the border with Mexico, unable to proceed.