The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) Program, more commonly known as the “Remain in Mexico” Policy, was reinstated by the Biden administration in December 2021 in response to a district court order. This program was initially established under the Trump administration in January 2019 and remained in effect for two years before being suspended by the Biden administration in June 2021.
The policy orders migrants in the program to be transferred to Mexican border towns near US ports of entry, where they reside while awaiting their asylum proceedings. Initially, shelters would house these individuals, but because of health restrictions put in place due to COVID-19 and the exponential increase in immigration, the shelters are overflowing, forcing migrants to live in makeshift camps in Mexican border towns. Although any migrant who originates from a Western Hemisphere country can be in the program, the majority are from Latin America, with the largest number immigrating from Mexico and the three northern triangle countries, namely Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In 2020, women made up 51.7% of all migrants arriving in the United States and 39.4% of those arriving specifically from Central and South America, which are the regions that this program most commonly pulls from.
Under both administrations’ jurisdiction, the program has jeopardized migrants’ safety. In 2019 and 2020, Human Rights First tracked 1,544 public reports of violent attacks on migrants sent to Mexican border towns. Although both male and female migrants are at risk, this reinstatement poses a serious threat to the lives and safety of female migrants specifically — and it’s not just because women are by nature more vulnerable to violence.
THE DANGEROUS BORDER TOWNS
The last decade has seen a steady increase in gender-based violence against women worldwide. This upward trajectory has accelerated over the last two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay-at-home orders forced women who experience intimate partner violence to isolate with their abusers, causing the violence to escalate. Lockdowns pose a significant threat to women in Latin America, where 70% of femicides occur in the victim’s home. In 2020, roughly 10 women were killed each day as a result of their gender in Mexico, a 5% increase from 2019. In Peru, calls to the country’s emergency sexual violence hotline almost doubled in 2020 in comparison to 2019. UN Women has labeled this rise in domestic violence “the Shadow Pandemic.” Abuse by an intimate partner is the most common form of violence against women, and reportedly affects around 641 million women globally.
The US government must put a permanent end to the Migrant Protection Protocols Program because it disregards the wellbeing of migrants, especially migrant women.
This rise in gender-based violence in Latin America has forced many women to flee their homes and migrate to the United States in order to escape. Although gender-based violence has consistently motivated migration from Latin America for decades, reports citing intimate partner violence as an impetus for emigration have increased by 70% since the start of the pandemic. The threat of violence remains prominent once migrant women are enrolled in the MPP program and transported to participating Mexican border towns, many of which are notorious for gender-based violence.
Ciudad Juárez is one of the border towns housing migrants under the MPP program and is located directly opposite El Paso, Texas. It is morbidly famous for a series of murders during the early 2000s that claimed the lives of some 400 women in total. Many of the deceased showed signs of rape, beating, and mutilation. Ciudad Juárez, along with several other towns in the program has been designated as level 4 threats by the US State Department — the same danger assessment given to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The US government advises its own citizens against traveling to these areas, and yet forcibly sends female migrants to them, knowing full well the historical and present threat of violence against women.
Once in these towns, many migrants are forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary tenement camps because of the lack of space in MPP-designated shelters. These tent camps not only leave migrants vulnerable to attack, but the living conditions within them are so deplorable that the situation has been designated a humanitarian crisis by immigrant rights groups. Poor sanitation threatens the health of migrants who menstruate and require period products, as well as mothers who need diapers and sanitation facilities for their babies.
PRIORITIZING MIGRANT SAFETY
The US government must put a permanent end to the MPP Program because it disregards the wellbeing of migrants, especially migrant women. Furthermore, they violate an international doctrine concerning the protection of women in conflict.
In October 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, on women, peace, and security. This resolution instructs parties in conflict “to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse.” Neither has the United States nor Mexico followed this directive in executing the MPP. If these special measures to protect women were taken seriously, female migrants would not be forcefully sent into towns with histories of rampant gender-based violence. They would not be handed over to immigration authorities and police forces who have reportedly attacked and sexually assaulted the migrants under their watch. They would not escape gender-based violence in their home countries only to face the same treatment in Mexican border towns.
The MPP was originally initiated by the Trump administration as yet another omnipresent deterrent of immigration to the United States. But data has shown that it has failed in this directive, therefore serving no real purpose except to further harm and dehumanize the migrant population. If the MPP is to continue, there must be serious procedural changes put into place in order to ensure the health and safety of those in the program.
First, migrants who are particularly vulnerable to attack, namely women, children, and members of the LGBTQ+ community must be exempt from being enrolled in the program. Furthermore, individuals who voice an overt concern for their safety if they were to be sent to Mexico should be believed and must also not be enrolled in the MPP. In order to ensure that the remaining individuals who are returned to Mexico live under better conditions than they do presently, there needs to be an increase in government funding on the part of the US government. Under the current program, the majority of the aid and resources given to migrants in the tenement camps come from non-profits and humanitarian organizations and are not nearly expansive enough to assist to the level needed. These newly allotted government funds would go towards building more shelters to house migrants to eliminate the need for tenement camps.
The US government must also work with the Mexican government to provide food, water, diapers, menstrual products, and other necessary living resources for the migrants. Lastly, migrants must be given work permits if returned to Mexico so that they can acquire jobs and provide for themselves and their families beyond that which is allocated to them presently by volunteers and under this new iteration by the government. Throughout the MPP’s existence migrants have not been given work permits, and thus could only obtain occupations with the risk of legal ramifications. The Biden administration vowed to provide more temporary work permits to migrants sent to Mexico under the newest iteration, but it is not yet clear how true or widespread this will be in practice. This has left them at the mercy of these volunteers and their donations, which as aforementioned are not adequate.
The MPP must either be stopped altogether, or modified in significant ways that will benefit the current circumstances of migrants in the program, especially vulnerable groups such as women. Migrant women deserve the international community’s concern. They deserve safety. Each day the MPP is in effect, more women are denied basic decencies, and that must end now.
Kate Kramer is currently interning with the International Rescue Committee and volunteering as a blog columnist for Project Stree, a non-profit focused on destigmatizing menstruation in India. She will be attending law school in the fall of 2022.