UT Law students prepare human rights report on ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy

Laura Morales

After observing makeshift court proceedings in tents and shipping containers and the conditions of encampments for asylum seekers across the border, the UT Law Immigration Clinic compiled a report that will be submitted to a human rights commission.

The Immigration Clinic, which provides pro bono legal services to immigrants seeking residence, will be sending the report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights this semester regarding the Migrant Protection Protocols, or the “Remain in Mexico” policy, clinic co-director Elissa Steglich said. The policy, implemented in January 2019, requires asylum seekers to stay within their country of origin while awaiting a court hearing in the United States, Steglich said. The commission can choose to investigate human rights abuses further and issue precautionary recommendations to comply with the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, she said.

Clinic directors Denise Gilman and Steglich oversee the testimony collection and preparations of asylum applications. The clinic has been working on the report since the Trump administration expanded the policy in July. Steglich said the radical changes in immigration law in the past few years have made it more difficult to do this work.

“Whether someone is able to have a chance to present their refugee claim here in the United States is often not (based on) the merits of their case,” Steglich said. “It is the luck of getting an asylum officer who will listen.”

In a statement released in October 2019, the Department of Homeland Security said this policy helped stop the human rights abuses happening under the catch and release policy, which allowed asylum seekers to wait in the U.S. for their hearing instead of returning them to their country of origin.

Law students Francis Wellin and Savannah Kumar traveled to Laredo and Matamoros, Mexico, in the fall semester of 2019. Applicants, who travel from Matamoros or sleep on the international bridge, go to Laredo where video monitors stream the judge and court officials in the San Antonio Immigration Court, Wellin said.

“The people who get to that court are the successful ones under the protocol,” Wellin said. “Around 50% of people aren’t even able to make it to their court hearing because it is designed for people to fail out of it.”

 Steglich agrees the system has been designed to prevent people from winning their asylum claims.

“The system is not providing them with someone who is present, looking in their eyes, feeling the weight of the stakes,” Steglich said. “That is very intentional. It is easier to say no when you are not in the same room as the person.”

Kumar said she had 30 minutes to speak with the applicants about their situation. Many of them were staying at the Matamoros camping facilities. The city is under a “Do not travel” U.S. Department of State travel advisory because of the high levels of crime and kidnappings. Kumar said this has made it difficult and even dangerous to meet with her clients. 

“In order to follow the legal process, they are being asked to put their lives at risk just so they can be heard by not even a judge in person, but by a judge who is sitting in San Antonio,” Kumar said. “They are seeing a video of a person who is making a life or death decision for them.”