A few times a week, attorney Jodi Goodwin walks across the bridge from Brownsville, Texas, to a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, to meet with asylum-seekers. Her clients are among the more than 2,500 immigrants crammed into tents while they wait for U.S. immigration hearings ― often stuck for months in dirty and dangerous conditions.
The forced return to Mexico of migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. is one of President Donald Trump’s most inhumane immigration policies, yet it hasn’t received nearly the attention that his family separation and prolonged detention practices have.
Since January, under Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” initiative ― also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) ― the U.S. government has sent at least 54,000 immigrants to wait for their court dates in Mexican border towns. Instead of staying with relatives in the U.S., families are sleeping in tents for up to eight months, in unprotected areas where infections spread within crowded quarters and cartel kidnappings are commonplace. Family separation ended a year ago. But Trump’s mistreatment of asylum-seekers continues in a different form.
Some parents are so desperate that they’ve resorted to sending their children across the bridge alone, since unaccompanied kids who arrive at the border cannot be turned away under MPP. Since October, at least 135 children have crossed back into the U.S. by themselves after being sent to wait in Mexico with their parents, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In Mexico, many of these migrants don’t have access to lawyers and are forced to plead their cases in makeshift tent courts set up along the U.S. border where overwhelmed judges conduct hearings via video teleconference. The courts have limited public access ― lawyers and translators say that they have been barred from attending hearings. Migrants’ advocates argue that the tent courts violate due process, and immigrant rights organizations have filed a federal lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the use of videoconferencing.
Goodwin, who has 42 clients, said there is a serious shortage of lawyers willing to represent immigrants staying in another country where crime is rife. She spoke with HuffPost about why the Remain in Mexico policy is even more traumatic than separating thousands of families and why it hasn’t sparked public outrage.
HuffPost: Immigrant parents forced to wait in Mexico are making the heart-wrenching choice to send their kids to the U.S. alone. What are the conditions like at the camp in Matamoros?
Jodi Goodwin: It smells like urine and feces. There’s not enough sanitation. There’s 10 port-a-potties for thousands of people. Up until recently, there was no potable water available at all. People were bathing in the Rio Grande river, getting sick and, in some cases, drowning. People were seriously dehydrated.
The camp sounds completely unfitting for any human being, let alone children.
It’s a horrific situation to put families in. It’s great to live in a tent for the weekend when you’re going to the lake. It’s not great to live in a tent for months at a time where you don’t have basic necessities.
Are kids getting sick?
The kids are sick every day. I’ve seen all kinds of respiratory illnesses and digestive illnesses. I’ve seen chronic illnesses like epilepsy. I saw a baby that appeared to have sepsis who was forced to wait on the bridge for more than three hours before being taken to a hospital.
And what about the kidnappings? Have you heard of families being taken by cartel members who then try and extort an immigrant’s U.S. relatives for money?
About half of the people I’ve spoken to in Mexico have been kidnapped. The cartel knows if they can grab an immigrant, they’re likely to be able to work out a ransom. If they don’t, then they just kill them.
Any specific examples?
I dealt with one case where a mom from El Salvador and her 4-year-old son were kidnapped within an hour of being sent back to Mexico under MPP. They were taken for eight days before her brother in the U.S. paid the kidnappers $7,000.
The lady was terrified. She was sleep-deprived, food-deprived and water-deprived. She said that the people who had kidnapped her were extremely violent and hit her kid. They were drinking alcohol and raping people at a stash house where several other people were being held.
The last time we spoke, you were on the frontlines of family separation, visiting detention centers where mothers were hysterically crying after being ripped apart from their children. How does the trauma of MPP compare, particularly for parents who are sending their kids across the border alone?
It’s way worse. I can’t with any confidence say that they will ever see their children again.
I knew there were legal ways to get out of family separation. We were able to talk with our clients and didn’t have to go off to another country. And for those parents who got through their interviews or their court hearings, we were able to get them back with their kids.
With MPP, the assault is not only on human rights but also on due process within the court systems, which has completely hijacked the ability to be able to fix things. The parents can’t even get into the country to try to reunify with their kids.
Nearly 3,000 children were separated from their parents under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. Do you think a similar number of families will be ripped apart because of Remain in Mexico?
It could be more. Over 55,000 people have been sent back to Mexico. I’ve talked to so many parents who have sent their kids across. It’s a heart-wrenching decision process that they go through. How do you give up your baby?
It reminds me of Jewish parents who were captives in Nazi Germany and had to convince their kids to get on a different train or go in a different line to save their own lives.
Have you witnessed these separations firsthand?
In November I saw a little boy and his 4-year-old sister sent across the bridge with an older child, who was about 14 years old. The teenager carried the baby boy, who still had a pacifier in his mouth, and the girl was holding onto the older kid’s belt loop.
I was standing on the bridge between Matamoros and the U.S. and I turned around to look down at the bank of the Rio Grande river. Every single parent who has sent their kid to cross tells me the same thing: As soon as they say goodbye and hug their kids, they run to the bank to watch them. [Her voice breaks] I knew there was somebody probably standing on that bank hoping those kids made it across.
Do you still think about those kids?
Oh yeah. The green binky that the little baby was sucking on is knitted in my mind.
You’ve been working hundreds of hours a month to try and help people stranded in Matamoros. This work must take a toll on you personally.
I’ve been practicing law for 25 years and the last four to five months of practicing law has broken me.
I don’t want to fucking do this anymore. [Her voice breaks again] It sucks. How do you explain to people that you know they thought they were coming to a place where there’s freedom and safety and where the laws are just, but that’s not the situation? I’m very mad.
Family separation resulted in massive outcry from the public, which eventually pressured the government to end the zero-tolerance policy. Why is MPP not getting the same attention?
There is no public outrage because it’s not happening on our soil. It’s happening literally 10 feet from the turnstile to come to the U.S. But because it’s out of sight and out of mind, there is no outrage. What ended family separation was public outrage. It had nothing to do with lawsuits. It had everything to do with shame, shame, shame.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.