Background and Rationale for the Oppose DHS’s “Remain in Mexico” Policy Action Alert

Background on the Issue

What’s happening?

On December 20, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a new policy: the U.S. government would begin returning certain asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait for the duration of their cases pending in the U.S. immigration court system, though they would still be expected to show up on the U.S. side of the border for their court hearings.

This policy was officially issued via memorandum on January 25, 2019, titled “Policy Guidance for Implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP).

According to this policy guidance, asylum-seekers (single adult males, single adult females, and family units) arriving by land to the U.S./Mexico border will be returned to Mexico after they pass the first step of the asylum process (the credible fear interview).

As outlined in the policy guidance, MPP is not to affect:

  • Any person who is determined by DHS to be more likely than not to face persecution or torture in Mexico. (“More likely than not” is a high standard that many asylum officers have little familiarity with; thus far, less than 1% of asylum-seekers subject to MPP have been permitted to remain in the U.S. despite extremely dangerous and under-resourced conditions in Mexican border cities);

  • Unaccompanied migrant children;

  • Mexican citizens or nationals (however, as of early January 2020, DHS was temporarily directed to include Mexican nationals as one of the populations subject to removal to Guatemala under a bilateral agreement signed by the Guatemalan government and put into effect in November 2019);  

  • Individuals who are processed for expedited removal;

  • Individuals with known mental or medical health issues (however, even notably sick migrants have been returned to Mexico under MPP, including a mother and her ill 12-year-old daughter in December 2019);

  • Individuals of interest to the U.S. or Mexican government or those with a criminal history or history of violence; and

  • Lawful Permanent Residents (U.S. green card holders) returning to the U.S. or individuals with advanced parole.

DHS began implementing the “Remain in Mexico” policy at the San Ysidro Point of Entry (POE) on January 29, 2019 (Justice for Immigrants). They began implementing the policy at the El Paso/Juarez POE on March 20 (NBC News). On June 7, the Trump administration announced that the U.S. would immediately expand implementation of MPP “across the entire southern border” (Washington Post); however, the practice was not implemented at every POE at that time. MPP was officially expanded to the Tucson, Arizona sector of the border on November 22, 2019.

In April 2019, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked MPP, which temporarily halted the returns of asylum-seekers to Mexico, but in early May, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the program, and the returns to Mexico started once again. 

After President Donald Trump threatened in late May to impose increased tariffs on Mexican imports if Mexico didn’t take drastic measures to reduce the number of migrants arriving to the U.S. border, the two countries came to an agreement on June 7. This agreement not only included the expansion of MPP, but it also deployed the Mexican National Guard to the Mexican southern border to curb migration into Mexico.

Since the U.S. and Mexico reached their June 7 agreement, 200 to 500 people per day were being returned to Mexico in the Ciudad Juárez/El Paso sector alone under MPP. Though most asylum-seekers subjected to MPP are from Central American countries, other nationalities include people from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. Those not returned to Mexico under MPP are still subjected to DHS’s metering policy, which requires asylum-seekers to wait in line with a number to make an initial claim for asylum (in many sectors of the border, these lines have surpassed ten thousand).  

On January 9, 2020 DHS announced that the U.S. was planning to move forward with the implementation of a bilateral agreement to send asylum-seekers from five countries to Honduras to apply for asylum there. The announcement means that those from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Brazil who have come to the U.S. to seek asylum could soon be sent to Honduras, even if they had not traveled through that country in their journey to the U.S. The agreement - one of three asylum cooperative agreements the administration signed in 2019 with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - would also involve U.S. on-the-ground assistance in Honduran immigration control efforts, including the sending of American training and support personnel. 

The Guatemalan agreement is the only one of the three agreements that has been implemented thus far, and the U.S. has been sending Honduran and Salvadoran asylum-seekers to Guatemala since November 2019. The administration had briefly considered sending Mexican asylum-seekers to Guatemala via the agreement as well, but those plans were temporarily halted on January 9 after concern was voiced from Guatemalan and Mexican officials, legislators, and immigrant advocates. The decision to pause the expansion of the Guatemalan agreement came on the same day as DHS announced its plan to implement the Honduran agreement. 

A report on January 14 found that DHS tripled its rate of “credible fear” denials in FY 2019. Credible fear is the first of many stages in the asylum application and judgment process, and prior to 2019, more than 90% of applicants passed credible fear tests upon beginning their asylum applications.

As of January 2, 2020, over 56,000 asylum-seekers have been sent back to Mexico under MPP after requesting asylum at the U.S. southern border.


What’s the big deal?

This policy may be unlawful.
Under U.S. immigration law, asylum-seekers are legally permitted to remain in the U.S. while their cases are pending. This is not only true for the U.S., but around the world. According to Article 33 of the Refugee Convention, countries are prohibited from returning refugees “in any manner whatsoever” to territories where they face a threat to their life or freedom; additionally, the U.N. Convention against Torture prohibits a country from removing someone who faces torture to a third country that would subsequently expel the person to the place where they face torture (Human Rights First).

In April 2019, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked MPP, which temporarily halted the returns of asylum-seekers to Mexico, but in early May, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the program, and the returns to Mexico started once again.

It exposes already vulnerable people to more risk and danger.
This policy leaves many vulnerable asylum-seekers to wait in dangerous and inadequate conditions. Those whose lives are already at great risk may not be able to access the health and humanitarian services they need. The OSJ’s church partners on the Mexican side of the border in Ciudad Juarez have reported desperate conditions, with asylum-seekers living on the streets vulnerable to gang violence, trafficking, public health risks, and extreme poverty. The most recent groups of returned migrants — up to 500 people per day per sector — come back to Mexico with nothing and nowhere to stay, despite being told by U.S. officials that they would be met with food, shelter, and medical assistance. 

It adds barriers to people’s due process and access to justice.
This policy impacts those people who have shown that they have a credible fear of persecution; nonetheless, the policy will make them wait in Mexico without access to family, legal, or social support. Most of the 10,000 migrants already returned to Mexico under MPP do not have lawyers, which significantly impacts their chances of obtaining asylum. Additionally, there have been multiple reports of MPP returnees not being able to make it to their court hearings on the U.S. side of the border. Undoubtedly, this has made it more difficult for those subject to the policy to successfully assert their asylum claims.

It places burdens on Mexico
The impacts on Mexico are significant. Some Mexican officials reported that this policy change was initially not made in agreement with them; in December, the U.S. informed them of the policy implementation plans the morning of the announcement. Mexican officials expressed great concern that border cities would be overwhelmed and that there would be insufficient resources to host hundreds of thousands of U.S.-asylum-seekers that may be required to wait up to three years for their claims to be processed. The OSJ’s church partners in Ciudad Juarez have reported that Mexican government officials have told them repeatedly that they have no resources to help them in their ministry to care for asylum-seekers.

It confuses — and thus blocks — access to the asylum process
In mid-March 2019, those who were subjected to the policy at the San Ysidro point of entry missed their court hearings on the U.S. side of the border because of a “glitch” in the court hearing scheduling system and failing to give claimants enough advanced notice; one individual was blocked by Border Patrol agents from entering the U.S. for her court hearing (San Diego Tribune). Non-citizens have the right to be represented by an attorney in U.S. immigration proceedings, so their access to legal counsel and due process is severely impeded when they are forced to remain in Mexico with very little resources available to them (Human Rights First).

It impacts churches
As of March 20, 2019, the policy began to be implemented at the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez POE. The Office of Social Justice first learned this news from an RCA colleague whose brother pastors a Presbyterian Church in Ciudad Juarez. They reported that even though the official policy change was not announced until March 20, asylum-seekers had been required to stay on the Mexico-side of the border while they waited for their claims to be processed even prior to this date. 

Government-run shelters are at capacity and even closing down, so the government has asked churches and non-profit organizations to help in providing for the shelter and basic needs of migrants. As reported by one of these pastors, earlier this spring, Mexican government officials expressed great concern to Ciudad Juarez faith leaders about the “Remain in Mexico” policy and the dwindling resources they have to care for migrants — both those already there and those on the way. They have asked churches to help with this great humanitarian need. 


Why does the CRCNA care?

The families at our southern border have fled violence, desperation, and persecution, and they remain extremely vulnerable if denied their right to stay in the U.S. while their asylum claims are adjudicated. 

Additionally, our partners through the Reformed Church of America and the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico in Ciudad Juarez that are providing humanitarian aid to asylum-seekers have reported that government shelters for migrants are at capacity and people have been sleeping on the streets. A Presbyterian pastor has opened his church building to house and care for dozens asylum-seekers. They have expressed great concern about the rights and safety of migrants required to remain on the Mexican side of the border. We, also, are concerned about asylum-seekers’ health, safety, and access to due process.

When the U.S. blocks vulnerable people and families fleeing violence and persecution from accessing legal protections and safe refuge, we are exposing them to further risk. As outlined previously, the U.S. violates its obligations under international law if it returns people to places where they face torture or a threat to their life or freedom, and/or to where they could ultimately be forcibly returned to the countries where they first experienced persecution. 

In its 2010 mandate for the denomination regarding immigration, Synod encouraged “congregations and their individual members to speak out against and seek to reform laws and practices concerning the treatment of immigrants that appear to be unduly harsh or unjust.” It is harsh and unjust to subject vulnerable people to further vulnerability and risk of harm when we as the church have been called to welcome and provide refuge for those who suffer. Synod additionally confirmed that, “citizenship in the kingdom of God obligates believers to the highest law of love for God and neighbor above all, and the exercise of this love should lead believers to advocate for laws that will mandate the just and humane treatment of immigrant peoples.”


CRCNA Positions and Mandates


Scripture points broadly to themes relevant to this issue, including:

  • The church’s calling to care for the migrant / stranger / sojourner (e.g. “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:18, 19)

  • The church’s calling to visit, remember, and free the prisoner (e.g. "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." Hebrews 13:1-3)

  • The calling of the church to extend hospitality to those suffering (e.g. “But no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler.” Job 31:32)

  • Particular concern for the well-being of children (e.g. “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.” Psalm 82:3)

  • The dignity afforded to all human beings by virtue of the image of God in them (e.g. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27) 

Denominational Positions

Synod has affirmed that the Bible has instructed the church to engage in this issue, saying:

  • All people are created in the image of God and are to be treated as such regardless of circumstances under which the church encounters individuals or of a given person’s race, background, or legal status.

  • God’s Word consistently directs the people of God to be welcoming toward the strangers in their midst and to extend special care to those most vulnerable to social or economic conditions that threaten their ability to survive.

  • The church of Jesus Christ welcomes all who profess faith in him as their Lord and Savior and who desire to live for him. God has no favorites—true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition of membership in the church.

  • God’s Word calls upon believers to respect the governing authorities and the laws of the state. However, citizenship in the kingdom of God obligates believers to the highest law of love for God and neighbor above all, and the exercise of this love should lead believers to advocate for laws that will mandate the just and humane treatment of immigrant peoples.

An extended theological and Biblical treatment, which grounds the CRCNA’s position on immigration, can be found in Study on the Migration of People report of the 2010 Synod.

Synod passed the following in 2010:

G. That synod instruct the Board of Trustees to encourage the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action and the Canadian Committee for Contact with the Government, in collaboration with their denominational and non-denominational partners, to engage in, as a priority, policy development and advocacy strategies that will lead to immigration reform and the enactment of fair, just, and equitable laws regarding those without status in Canada and the United States.

H. That synod encourage congregations and their individual members to speak out against, and seek to reform, laws and practices concerning the treatment of immigrants that appear to be unduly harsh or unjust.

I. That synod, mindful of the need for governments to create and enforce laws that protect the security and integrity of a given nation’s borders, nevertheless encourage congregations and church members to support the need for comprehensive immigration reform in ways that will reduce the number of people without status and/or non-status workers and provide increased opportunities for immigrants to gain legal status within the nation.

J. That synod encourage congregations to advocate on behalf of those suffering in prison on account of their lack of status to ensure a more just and dignified process in dealing with them while also advocating for more humane treatment of those who are unfortunate enough to be imprisoned.

Ground: The governments of both the United States and Canada have been struggling with comprehensive immigration reform for years, recognizing that current policies are insufficient to deal with contemporary aspects of immigration. The CRC can be of service to these governments by speaking up for the just treatment of all people as part of the larger process to reform current laws and policies.

K. That synod urge the Christian Reformed Church, through its assemblies and agencies, to affirm the need to reach out in hospitality and compassion to immigrant people and that synod further encourage churches to display this ministry concern through actions that include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Prayerful study and discussion of issues related to the causes that motivate people to immigrate to other lands so as to deepen understanding of the circumstances under which many people live.

  2. Mindful attention to the plight of both documented workers and people without status and to reach out in love to those who seek assistance for themselves and for their children in terms of financial assistance, food, clothing, and shelter.

Ground: Scripture calls us to be mindful of the plight of aliens and strangers, offering compassion and love in Christ’s name to those who find themselves marginalized and in need.