ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now let's take a close look at a key part of the Trump administration's plan to control migration at the southern border. The new policy known as Remain in Mexico requires that asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration court. NPR's Joel Rose has been reporting along the border, and he's found thousands of migrants without lawyers, confused and scared. He joins us now from El Paso. Hi, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Start by telling us what you found on the Mexican side of the border in Ciudad Juarez.
ROSE: Well, more than 6,000 migrants have been returned to Juarez so far. Most of them are poor, are staying in shelters run by churches in town, waiting for their days in court. And I was in that court yesterday and saw several families, including young children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The judge asked if they had lawyers. And one by one, almost all of them said, no.
That is one of the biggest problems. Lawyers here estimate that maybe 20 migrants out of the thousands who have been sent back to Juarez have found attorneys. Lawyers tell me that it is just too hard and time consuming to make this trek back and forth across the border to meet with clients. Wait times on the bridges can be several hours long.
SHAPIRO: Why do the migrants say they feel afraid? What are they afraid of?
ROSE: Well, I've met a lot of migrants, and none of them have told me that they feel safe in Juarez. The crime is rampant here. And these migrants stand out. They are carrying all of their belongings. Sometimes, you know, they look destitute. And they've become targets. Linda Rivas is a lawyer and one of the few nonprofit lawyers representing these migrants. We talked outside immigration court.
LINDA RIVAS: Never have we dealt with clients that are in so much danger. You're representing them. And you know they're going to be back in Juarez. And you don't know if something's going to happen to them while they're waiting for their court, while they're waiting for you to go out there and work on their asylum case with them. Anything can happen, and it's happening.
ROSE: Rivas told me one particularly grisly story that really has stuck with me. A client of hers - it's a woman from Honduras who asked for asylum in the U.S. and was put into this Remain in Mexico program. She told U.S. authorities that she didn't feel safe in Juarez as a single woman from Honduras, but she was sent back anyway. And then the woman says she was kidnapped and raped by multiple attackers.
And when Rivas heard what happened, she and other lawyers escorted the woman to the International Bridge and convinced authorities to let her wait in the U.S. for her day in court. But Rivas says, you know, that she's terrified for her other clients who are still in Mexico.
SHAPIRO: What else are you hearing there about how this Remain in Mexico policy is being carried out?
ROSE: Well, advocates and lawyers are also concerned that it's leading to family separations. These are not the same family separations that were happening under zero tolerance a year ago. These families are being separated because some of the members are being sent back to Mexico and some are not. For example, lawyers say they've met fathers who are sent back with their children who are over 18 years old while the mothers were allowed to stay in the U.S. with their younger children. More often, though, these families are separated when young children come to the border with an adult who is not their parent or legal guardian - could be a grandmother, an aunt, an older sibling.
This has been happening for years because authorities say they need legal proof of guardianship. And they're trying to ensure that these kids are not being trafficked. But under Remain in Mexico, the relatives can easily lose touch with these kids because the children go into U.S. custody, and the caregivers go back to Mexico. And there's no system set up like the one in the U.S. for them to be able to talk on the phone.
SHAPIRO: What do federal officials in the Trump administration say about this?
ROSE: Well, they have defended the program, which the administration officially calls MPP, which stands for Migrant Protection Protocols. The administration argues that it's necessary because migrants with weak asylum cases have been abusing the system to gain entry to the U.S. So in some ways, the Trump administration is achieving a big goal of stopping these migrants from entering the U.S. But there are concerns about the program even inside the Trump administration.
The asylum officers who were charged with helping to carry out the program took a very unusual step yesterday. The union that represents asylum officers filed a brief in federal court as part of a lawsuit seeking to block Remain in Mexico. The asylum officers say the program is, quote, "fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our nation," unquote. They say that asylum is designed to give sanctuary to vulnerable people and that this program is forcing them to stay in Mexican border towns which are just not safe places for them to be.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Joel Rose in El Paso, Texas. Thanks, John.
ROSE: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.