Editor's Note: Since this story published, the Honduran family we interviewed has been removed from Migrant Protection Protocols and allowed to stay in the U.S. to pursue their asylum claim. Read the family's update here.
Months after witnessing the slaying death of her mother, a Honduran woman is finally getting a chance to make her case for asylum in the United States. She and her family will have to get through a process that is often chaotic, constantly changing and often dangerous.
Tania, Joseph and their three children have been placed in the Trump administration's "remain in Mexico" program, formally called Migrant Protection Protocols, which requires them to live in Juárez, Mexico, while an immigration judge in El Paso, Texas, decides whether they qualify for asylum in the U.S. (NPR is not using migrants' last names in this story because these are people who are in the middle of immigration proceedings.)
Their past is terrifying, their present is confusing, their future is uncertain.
"My mom was shot nine times, and even after the murder they weren't satisfied with having killed her. Her body was slumped on the ground, and they ran over her with a motorcycle," Tania told Morning Edition host Noel King at the family's shelter in Juárez.
Tania and her sister-in-law witnessed the killing and agreed to testify in court. Her sister-in-law was slain and her infant daughter left in a dumpster. Then Tania got a chilling note on her front door.
"They left a note where they said we had 45 minutes to leave the house. They signed it 'Sincerely, the Mara Salvatrucha' " — the notorious MS-13 gang, Tania said. She gathered her husband and three children and fled north, hoping to live with family in the U.S. while they made their asylum claim. Instead, they were sent back to Juárez shortly after entering the United States in April.
They've lived for months in shelters with their two young daughters and son, waiting for their time in court. They say they were threatened three times in Juárez, a city dominated by violent drug cartels. Their youngest daughter, 3-year-old has a scar on her chest from heart surgery. El Paso's Catholic bishop tried to help them win permission two weeks ago to stay in the United States. But after a few days in El Paso, they were again sent back to Mexico.
They got their first hearing in immigration court on Wednesday.
A day in court
They left their shelter early in the morning and crossed the international bridge shortly after 8 a.m. They had a 1 p.m. court date, along with 36 other migrants making their first appearances — too many to fit into the courtroom at once. Half the group was brought in for one two-hour session, while the rest remained in a waiting room outside; then they changed places.
The "respondents," as they are called in court, were mostly families with young children, all from Central America. The judge and Spanish interpreter frequently had to speak up over the sound of babies crying in the courtroom.
Unlike most of the others in the court, Tania and Joseph were represented by an attorney — Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an El Paso nonprofit.
In court, Rivas tried to get Tania and her family taken out of Migrant Protection Protocols because of the daughter's heart condition. Department of Homeland Security guidelines say people with "known physical/mental health issues" are not supposed to be sent back to Mexico. She presented medical records that showed the daughter had previously suffered a heart attack.
"The child?" immigration Judge Nathan Herbert asked.
"There is a history of a heart attack for this very young child," Rivas responded.
Herbert, as he often does in cases involving Migrant Protection Protocols, said whether the family stays in Mexico is not his decision to make. He asked the Department of Homeland Security attorney to take note of Rivas' concerns about the young girl.
Rivas later said she expected the family to be returned to Mexico yet again. Herbert set the family's next hearing for Aug. 15, when Rivas will begin presenting their asylum case.
Once sent to Mexico, it is very difficult for migrants to get out of Migrant Protection Protocols and be allowed to pursue their immigration cases in the U.S. Migrants must prove they have a "reasonable fear" of returning to Mexico — a high legal bar — or demonstrate that they shouldn't have been placed in the program in the first place. More than 19,000 people have been sent back to Mexico under MPP since April, including about 9,000 sent from El Paso to Juárez.
Rivas said she has been able to get about 40 people taken out of the MPP program. Those included people who were kidnapped in Mexico, had a physical illness, were pregnant or LGBTQ. Rivas has helped seven pregnant women and a family with a 4-year-old girl with a severe neurological impairment get removed from MPP.
A major frustration for Rivas and other attorneys trying to help families in MPP is the constant changing of rules around the program. Before late June, they were able to meet with clients and other asylum-seekers before court, to talk about their cases and tell them about their rights.
"Today, they didn't even let me into the waiting room. There were guards that were physically standing at the waiting room. I was not even allowed into the waiting room of a court, an immigration court, that I've been practicing in for five years," Rivas said.
Another El Paso attorney, Taylor Levy, was at the court on Wednesday offering free legal assistance to asylum-seekers and giving children crayons and coloring books to keep them occupied in the strange environment. In the past, she and other attorneys were allowed to meet with migrants for an hour before their court session to give them a "know your rights" presentation to prepare them for the process. In late June, Justice Department officials ordered an end to the presentations.
"It's ridiculous. I am here to help people for free. They are going to be here all day. There's a free attorney willing to talk to them, wanting to help orient people, and we are being told that we are not allowed to speak to them," Levy said.
A Justice Department official said the "know your rights" presentations were stopped because they weren't being done by people authorized under the department's Legal Orientation Program. Ending the sessions was necessary "to ensure that the aliens were not misled or confused about their proceedings or otherwise taken advantage of, and to maintain the integrity of each respondent's proceeding."
"We're attorneys," Levy said, waving her hand.
Immigration attorneys aren't the only critics of the remain in Mexico program.
The president of the union for immigration judges said the program is putting incredible stress on the judges in El Paso. The city has four judges for the "non-detained court," which hears cases of people not in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The judges have been told to expect to handle 50 cases in the morning and 50 cases in the afternoon, said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
"The expectation is that the numbers are going to be quite high, that the judges are expected to be on the bench all the time, and that they are just expected to go through these quickly and swiftly," Tabaddor said. "And that's been one of the big challenges is that they have essentially sped up the process in the guise of trying to attack the backlog, but speeding up the process really places the judge in a very untenable position of having to uphold his or her oath of office while worrying about whether they're meeting quotas and deadlines."
The union representing the asylum officers who administer the "reasonable fear" interviews for migrants has called Migrant Protection Protocols "fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation." That claim came in a court filing in a lawsuit that aims to block MPP from going forward.
In a tweet, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli, who oversees the asylum officers, said "the complaining union leaders are choosing to deny reality."
Rivas said immigration attorneys were told this week that Cuccinelli issued orders prohibiting them from sitting in on phone interviews between their clients and asylum officers. She has previously been allowed to listen in on the interviews, with a chance to advocate for her client at the end. No more.
Rivas said she took the case of Tania and her family because she thought they had a strong asylum claim. She still thinks so. But she's growing weary.
"How much longer can we do this? Are we really making a difference?" she said.
Robert Moore is a freelance journalist based in El Paso.
Bo Hamby, Amara Omeokwe and William Jones produced and edited the broadcast version of this story, with Mónica Ortiz Uribe contributing.
NOEL KING, HOST:
All this week, I've been reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. I'm looking into a Trump administration policy called Migrant Protection Protocols, or Remain in Mexico. What the policy means is that people who cross into the U.S. seeking asylum are sent to Mexico to wait for their day in U.S. immigration court.
Now, there are thousands of people anxiously waiting on their dates. Some of them told us that date is the only thing keeping them from giving up and just going home. But then this week, we went to the immigration court in El Paso, and it made us wonder if their hope is misplaced because what we saw looked a lot like a legal crisis.
I'm standing outside of the El Paso Immigration Court. So this is a building that we've been hearing about all week because so many of the people that we've been talking to are looking to have their asylum cases heard in this court.
One of them is a family from Honduras - Tania (ph), her husband, Joseph (ph), and their three little kids. Tania is one of those people who smiles all of the time, even when she's stressed out. And right now, she is very stressed out. I met her and her family in a shelter in Ciudad Juarez. That's the city just across the border from El Paso. They were sent there after they crossed into the U.S. They're among the thousands of people who are waiting in Mexico until their court date.
The only time that Tania's smile fades is when she talks about what brought her family to the border. This is the story she told us earlier this week when we first met her. She says that back in Honduras, her mom, like a lot of people, was targeted by the MS-13 gang. Tania's lawyer asked us not to say exactly why because it could affect Tania's court case. But eventually, MS-13 got to Tania's mother.
TANIA: (Through interpreter) My mom was shot nine times. And even after the murder, they weren't satisfied with having killed her. Her body was slumped on the ground, and they ran over her with a motorcycle.
KING: Tania watched all of this, completely helpless.
TANIA: (Through interpreter) It's very hard to watch your mother get killed right before your eyes and not do anything about it.
KING: So she decided to do something about it. She went to court. She testified against the gang members. She says she tried to hide her identity, but the gang found out who she was. Tania's sister-in-law was a witness in that same case. The gang kidnapped, tortured and killed her and then left her infant daughter in a dumpster. After that, they came for Tania.
TANIA: (Speaking Spanish).
KING: They told her, basically, you're next. She says they left a note on her front door. It said, you have 45 minutes to leave. Sincerely, MS-13.
That family has an awful story, but they also have something that a lot of people don't. They have a lawyer who heard that story and said, I'm going to take your case. So on the day of the court hearing, the lawyer, Linda Rivas, leads Tania and her family into the courtroom. I'm not allowed to record while I'm in there. But Linda walks in looking like she knows what's up. The judge jokes with her. He says, hey, it's been a while. And the other migrants look at them. And to me, it looks like they're thinking, oh, that family gets to go first because they have a lawyer. They get to sit in chairs in front of the judge. He's going to talk directly to them.
Linda, the lawyer, tries to get Tania's family out of Mexico. She tells the judge - and this is a true story - Tania's 3-year-old daughter has a heart condition. She's had a heart attack. The judge's eyebrows shoot way up. He says, the child? Yes. This is what having a lawyer gets you, a chance to tell your story.
But then after the hearing, outside of the courtroom, Linda Rivas, this confident lawyer, lets her guard down, and she tells us that she has been wondering...
LINDA RIVAS: How much longer can we do this? And are we really making a difference?
KING: The problem in El Paso is this. There are too few immigration lawyers, too few Linda Rivases, for 9,000 migrants who are stuck in Ciudad Juarez alone. She is so overwhelmed right now. This is what makes it so bizarre to then run into another lawyer, who's buzzing around the courthouse openly saying, hey, I'm here to help for free.
It's a woman named Taylor Levy. She knows this courthouse really well. Taylor used to be part of something called the Know Your Rights program. She would walk in here and talk to migrants before their court hearings and make sure that, at the very least, they knew their basic rights. But she says, recently, she was told to stop doing this. The Justice Department ended this court's Know Your Rights program.
TAYLOR LEVY: It's ridiculous. I'm here to help people for free. They're going to be here all day. There's a free attorney willing to talk to them, wanting to help orient people. And we are being told that we are not allowed to speak to them.
KING: So instead of legal advice, she's now bringing crayons and coloring books. In fact, I watched as a security guard told her she couldn't come into the courtroom. We asked the Justice Department why they ended Know Your Rights in that El Paso courtroom, and they told us in a statement that they want to make sure migrants aren't being misled or confused about their proceedings or otherwise taken advantage of.
But it is not just that program that's ending. Linda Rivas, Tania's lawyer, said, for some reason, she is also being given less access in this court, even to her own clients.
RIVAS: Today, they didn't even let me into the waiting room. There were guards that were physically standing at the waiting room. And I was not even allowed into the waiting room of a court - an immigration court that I've been practicing before for five years.
KING: The people without lawyers, which is mostly everyone, look confused or bored or anxious or all three. They're given forms in English even though everyone has said Espanol when asked what language they speak. One man raises his hand and says to the judge, I can't find a lawyer. And the judge seems sympathetic. His advice appears to be, you should keep trying.
At the end of the hearing, every migrant in that room is in the same boat, including Tania and her family. They will likely be held by immigration authorities for a few days, and then they'll be sent back to Mexico to wait some more. The judge tells them, I will see all of you again on August 15 for a second hearing.
By that date, Linda Rivas, the lawyer, says she will have an asylum application prepared for Tania and her family. But everyone else in this room who hasn't found a lawyer - and most of them probably won't - they will sit in that courtroom on that day with no one at their side making a case for them.
On today's show, we also talk to an immigration judge about what this legal crisis is like for her and her colleagues on the bench. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.