U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers apprehend asylum seekers who recently crossed the border in Roma on Aug. 3, 2021. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruling to restore a policy that forces people seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border to stay in Mexico could have life-threatening consequences for those migrants, advocacy groups and immigration lawyers say.

On Tuesday night, the justices ruled that the Biden administration must restart the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols, informally called the “remain in Mexico” policy. The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by Texas and Missouri earlier this year.

Tami Goodlette, director of litigation at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a Texas-based organization that advocates for immigrants’ rights, said in a statement that there is nothing “improper, immoral, or wrong about” seeking asylum.

Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision “imposes even more suffering onto families who have come to the U.S. seeking safety and hope and instead must now stay in Mexico where they endure kidnapping, rape, and terrible violence,” Goodlette said.

District Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee in Amarillo, ruled last week that the Biden administration violated the law by scrapping the program, which was in effect in 2019 and 2020 and forced roughly 70,000 non-Mexicans to stay in Mexico while their asylum applications were pending.

The Biden administration appealed Kacsmaryk’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Texas and Missouri after they argued that releasing migrants into the U.S. puts a burden on states because the migrants use state services such as issuing drivers licenses, educating migrant children and providing hospital care. The administration then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which declined Biden’s request to temporarily pause Kacsmaryk’s ruling.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which would be responsible for implementing the policy, said that it will comply with the order but that it “respectfully disagrees with the district court’s decision and regrets that the Supreme Court declined to issue a stay.”

In a statement, the department said it will continue to fight the case now that it returns to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear arguments from both sides on whether Kacsmaryk made the correct ruling.

The ruling is the latest in an ongoing immigration battle between the Biden administration and Gov. Greg Abbott, who has blamed the president’s immigration policies for what he has described as a crisis at the border.

The ruling was celebrated by Abbott, who called it “a major victory for our state, our nation, and for the safety and security of our communities.” But advocacy groups warn that the policy could put a target on vulnerable immigrants for criminals looking to harm or profit from asylum seekers.

Human Rights First, an international human rights organization based in the U.S., released a report on Tuesday documenting at least 1,544 publicly-reported cases of killings, rapes and kidnappings against migrants who have been sent to Mexican border cities through MPP or other immigration policies that prevent them from remaining in the U.S. after requesting asylum.

In many cases, it can take years before an asylum petition is settled, and many migrants have tried to illegally cross the border rather than wait, advocates say.

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, a director of the Sidewalk School for Asylum Seekers, which provides schooling for the children of asylum seekers and other resources in some Mexican border cities, said that when MPP was previously in place, “it was awful.”

She said that children her organization has served have seen migrants get kidnapped in Reynosa, a border city across from McAllen. She worries that the reinstatement of the policy could mean more violence.

“They really get dragged off …in front of everyone as they scream for help,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “And I don’t blame people for not helping. Because no one wants to die. No one wants their kid to get hurt or kidnapped trying to help somebody else.”

Jennifer K. Harbury, a lawyer and founding member of the Texas-based advocacy group Angry Tias and Abuelas, wrote in court documents in a separate lawsuit against the federal government about a Central American transgender woman who had been beaten in Reynosa.

Harbury met the woman in Reynosa, where she has volunteered to help other asylum seekers.

According to Harbury’s testimony, the woman tried to enter the U.S. through Reynosa in 2019, but immigration officials expelled her back to Mexico, where she was raped and contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Mexico’s government had previously cooperated with the U.S. by agreeing to receive the migrants. Roberto Velasco Álvarez, director of North American affairs with Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a tweet on Tuesday that Mexico had plans to discuss the Supreme Court ruling with the Biden administration on Wednesday.

After the discussion, he said, Mexico will decide what to do based on the “respect of sovereignty issues and human rights.”

If Mexico declines to cooperate, it could cause a “diplomatic nightmare,” said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration attorney and law professor at Ohio State University.

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