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The State Department regularly issues warnings to Americans about crime and violence in towns just south of the Mexican border - that's where the Department of Homeland Security is sending thousands of migrants who have asked for asylum in the U.S. DHS officials had said they would not send vulnerable migrants back, but as NPR's Joel Rose reports, critics say they are not keeping that promise.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Jonathan fled Guatemala with his family earlier this year. We met him at a small migrant shelter run by a church in Ciudad Juarez.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter, speaking Spanish).
JONATHAN: Ocho, ocho.
ROSE: Jonathan looks like any other 8-year-old - skinny, shy, giggly. At first, you don't even notice his glass eye. But it's a constant source of worry for his family. Jonathan lost his eye to a tumor when he was a toddler. He needs medicine to keep the eye clean. But his father, Giovani, says it has been hard for the family to get medical care in a foreign city.
GIOVANI: (Through interpreter) It's a very delicate sickness, very complicated. He needs checkups frequently by medical specialists in the hospital.
ROSE: Giovani asked that we not use his family's last name because their asylum case is pending. They left Guatemala when Giovani's coffee farm failed, gangs tried to extort him, and the medical bills got to be too much. They waited for months for a chance to legally enter the U.S. Giovani says he explained his son's medical needs to immigration officials in El Paso, but it didn't make any difference.
GIOVANI: (Through interpreter) It seems like a joke. My family did everything right. We didn't hop over the fence or cross the river. But despite all that, they're still sending everybody back.
ROSE: More than 15,000 migrants - including 5,000 children - have been returned to Juarez and other border cities under the so-called Remain in Mexico policy, to wait for their day in U.S. immigration courts. Homeland Security officials have said that they make exceptions for, quote, "vulnerable populations." Their own guidance states that migrants with, quote, "known physical/mental health issues" should not be sent back to Mexico. But in practice, migrant advocates say that's exactly what's happening.
EDITH TAPIA: It's a sham just to say they gave them a chance.
ROSE: Edith Tapia is an activist with the Hope Border Institute, a nonprofit that works with migrants in Juarez and El Paso. She says U.S. officials have given very little information about the program that's formerly known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, and won't even clarify who qualifies for an exception.
TAPIA: Vulnerable populations has been kind of vague. They've used the example of members of the LGBTQ community. They've used, you know, kids or anyone with health issues, sometimes pregnant women with certain conditions. But we've seen all of those cases be in MPP.
ROSE: We also asked DHS to clarify, but a spokeswoman did not respond to our questions. Remain in Mexico is supposed to relieve pressure on the overwhelmed immigration system in the U.S. while discouraging meritless asylum claims. And the number of migrants crossing the southern border did decline somewhat last month, for the first time all year. Here's Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services speaking to MSNBC earlier this month.
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KEN CUCCINELLI: It appears that the implementation of MPP is easing at least some of the problem in some parts of the border.
ROSE: Cuccinelli's agency has set up a system for migrants to ask for an exemption, like Giovani, the Guatemalan father I met in Juarez. He met with an asylum officer and tried to make a case for his family, to explain why they should be able to wait for their court hearings in the U.S.
GIOVANI: (Through interpreter) Here in Juarez, we didn't feel safe because five days before our appointment, there was a murder outside the shelter.
ROSE: He also told the asylum officer about his son's eye, but again, it didn't matter.
GIOVANI: (Through interpreter) I feel the asylum officer ignored me and essentially said, if you've been able to survive in Juarez for this long, you can do it again.
ROSE: Activists say hundreds of migrants have requested these interviews, but that only a handful have been removed from the Remain in Mexico program. The rest are left to figure it out on their own.
Joel Rose, NPR News, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
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