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'Remain in Mexico' Hearings Delayed Over Coronavirus Concerns Could Increase Risk To Migrants

Citing the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. announced Monday that it would delay hearings for asylum seekers waiting in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain In Mexico” program. Migrant advocates say postponing hearings further endangers vulnerable migrants.

While hearings are being suspended through April 22, neither the "Remain in Mexico" program nor any hearings will be canceled, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Migrant advocates have been calling for an end to the “Remain In Mexico” program and for asylum seekers to be allowed to shelter-in-place with family or sponsors in the United States. Instead, they say Monday’s decision only adds to the risks migrants face.

“We’re forcing people to make impossible decisions," said Alex Miller, a legal fellow with the Arizona nonprofit the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. "Do I push forward and fight for my future and my future well-being or do I deal with the tangible threat that exists today? Do I pick my health and safety today, or my health and safety tomorrow? And that’s a really unfair position to be in.”

Miller said asylum seekers fleeing dangers at home are being forced to wait at the border in conditions that put them at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus, in addition to other dangers.

“So now that hearings are postponed to April 22, folks are facing increased uncertainty. Is it actually going to be April 22? Are there going to be further delays?" she said. "It just adds to the stress and vulnerability of a population that has already been marginalized."

The situation is even more difficult for asylum seekers returned to await their hearings just south of the Arizona border in Nogales, Sonora, Miller said. According to the DHS statement Monday, asylum seekers will still have to present themselves at their assigned port of entry on the day of their designated court hearing to receive a new hearing notice. Migrants waiting in Nogales have been assigned court hearings hundreds of miles away at in El Paso, Texas.

“Which is dangerous for them because it means public transit. It means giving up whatever shelter and resources they have in Nogales, with uncertainty in Juarez as many shelters in Mexico are starting to close their doors out of fear of the global pandemic," Miller said, adding that the Florence Project is trying to work out a way for those asylum seekers to receive their new hearing notices in Nogales instead.

But ultimately, they want to see asylum seekers to be allowed into the United States while they wait.

"Our position is that the only way to make sure that people’s rights are protected is to parole them into the US. To stop MPP hearings and to parole them into the US for their health and safety, and because we think that’s what they’re owed under U.S. law," Miller said. “We’re asking for them to be permitted to go someplace where they can be safe and where they can practice social distancing in a practical way."

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Kendal Blust, an Arizona native, reports from KJZZ’s bureau in Hermosillo, Sonora, focusing on business and economic relationships between Arizona and northern Mexico.Prior to joining KJZZ, Kendal worked at the Nogales International, reporting on border and immigration issues, local government, education and business. While working on her master’s degree at University of Arizona School of Journalism, she did stints with the Arizona Daily Star and the Tico Times in Costa Rica, and completed a thesis project about women art activists in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.In her pre-journalist life, Kendal was a teacher, first helping Spanish high school students learn English, then heading to Tucson to teach fourth grade.When she’s not in the newsroom, Kendal enjoys getting outside for a hike or a swim, catching a good movie, hanging out with family and friends, and eating great food.