The Harmful, Gendered Impacts of “Remain in Mexico” and Immigrant Detention

The US’s current immigration system causes irreparable harm to asylum seekers and migrants.  Systemic problems have spanned multiple administrations, but the Remain in Mexico policy implemented under the Trump administration is particularly harmful.  Newly inaugurated President Joe Biden should understand the gendered effects of our current immigration policies and work to reverse some of Trump’s worst policies.  Women are some of the most vulnerable immigrants seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border and have unique health and security needs that must be addressed. 

            The Remain in Mexico policy, formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), was implemented in January 2019.  Before then, an asylum officer would conduct a credible fear screening of the migrants, and if they passed they would be let into the US to await their court date.  With MPP, only those migrants who volunteer that they are afraid to go back to Mexico (not their home country) are given an interview.  And in the interview, they would have to prove that they had been threatened for a very specific reason (such as their nationality) and that Mexican authorities would be unwilling to protect them – an impossibly high standard that almost no one meets.  Asylum officers emphasize that these new policies are sending people back to Mexico and putting them at risk of being tortured, raped, and killed.[1]  The podcast This American Life explored the effects of the MPP program and provided the story of Ursula.  When she was seeking asylum at the border, Ursula said repeatedly that she was afraid of being assaulted and raped in Mexico, but she was sent back to Mexico because she was unable to name a specific person who threatened her.[2] 

            Over 69,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico, and most of them will end up being stuck in Mexico for at least a year before their case is heard.  Human Rights Watch has reported on the dangers and harms of the Remain in Mexico program.  In a joint investigation with Stanford University’s Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program and Willamette University’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic, Human Rights Watch found that migrants who are returned to Mexico to await their asylum court case have been sexually assaulted and abducted for ransom, among other serious crimes.[3]  Discussing the impossible standards for asylum seekers to be granted an exception to enter the United States, one immigration lawyer states: “The general idea US officials seem to have is that being kidnapped, raped, or extorted is to be expected.”[4] And since the US sends migrants back to Mexico in groups at the same time and place each day, cartel members can easily identify migrants, so kidnapping has become an easy and profitable business with an extensive infrastructure at border towns.  Tens of thousands of people are awaiting their asylum court cases and are now living in shelters, in the streets, and in encampments; the Mexican government leaves these migrants to the responsibility of humanitarian organizations, so there is often no official record of what is happening in these areas, but we know that kidnapping rates are tragically high and violence in camps is rampant.[5]

            The number of women migrating to the United States has been increasing exponentially.  The percent of women among those apprehended at the US southern border has increased from 32 percent to 54 percent in recent years, with almost 300,000 women apprehended in 2019.  Many women who try to claim asylum at the US-Mexico border are fleeing gender-based violence in their home countries.  In addition, the migrant journey itself is perilous, with these women often experiencing sexual violence and human trafficking during their journey north.[6]  As one expert puts it: “In this society, women are the most vulnerable.  Violence and inequality are gendered.”[7]  The Remain in Mexico program is putting women migrants at additional risk.  Sending women asylum seekers back to Mexico only increases their chances of being sexually assaulted or trafficked.  Not to mention the health risks of the encampments where migrants await their asylum cases – these encampments do not have access to clean water or proper sanitation.[8]

            While on the campaign trail, Biden claimed that he would end the Remain in Mexico policy on day one, but backtracked a bit during a December press conference, where he said, “It will get done, and it will get done quickly.  But it’s not going to be able to be done on day one….”[9] On day one, he did in fact halt new enrollments in MPP, but he has not announced what will happen to migrants already enrolled in MPP.[10]  Human Rights Watch recommends that the United States should immediately let already enrolled and waiting asylum seekers enter the US to await their court case.[11]  Charlene D’Cruz, an immigration lawyer in Texas argues that there is no reason MPP cannot be ended immediately: “These are not people just coming in that are not reported in the system.  They’ve been fingerprinted.  They’ve even gone to court several times.”[12]  So Biden can and should allow these enrolled migrants to enter the US to immediately alleviate some of the harm caused by the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

            While ending Remain in Mexico is vital, it will not solve the deeper systemic problems with our immigration system.  Another important step is to end the detention of immigrants.  Immigrant detention poses specific health risks and raises rights issues for immigrants, and specifically for immigrant women.  There have been numerous cases of women, particularly pregnant women, whose reproductive health was dangerously neglected while in immigrant detention.  An immigrant from El Salvador named Lisbeth was held in a detention center for two months; despite being in her second trimester of pregnancy, she never received a prenatal exam.[13]  And Teresa, another pregnant immigrant from El Salvador, was placed in a holding cell for 24 hours.  She experienced pain and heavy bleeding, but her requests for medical help were ignored by officials, and she miscarried.  She suffered serious complications from the miscarriage but still was not provided necessary medical care and even had medications confiscated that she herself had paid for from the detention facility’s commissary.[14]  Immigration detention in general does not provide immigrants access to reproductive health care – or to other physical and mental health services, for that matter.  In addition, there is an “epidemic of sexual assault” in these detention centers, contributing to the gender-based violence these vulnerable immigrants experience.[15]  When Biden ends the Remain in Mexico program, it is key that the reversal does not lead to a continued reliance on immigrant detention.  The US should shift to community-based alternatives, which are less expensive and help connect immigrants to legal, health, and social services.[16]  Addressing the harm that our current system inflicts on immigrants is long overdue.

Written by: Rebecca Mullaley F21

[1] Ira Glass, “Our Pulitzer-Winning Episode,” This American Life, May 15, 2020,

[2] Glass, “Our Pulitzer-Winning Episode.”

[3] “US: ‘Remain in Mexico’ Harms Children, Families,” Human Rights Watch, January 6, 2021,

[4] “US: ‘Remain in Mexico’ Harms Children, Families.”

[5] Glass, “Our-Pulitzer-Winning Episode.”

[6] Julia Westbrook, “How Mexico and Central America’s Femicide Epidemic Drives and Complicates the Migrant Crisis,” The New Humanitarian, February 27, 2020,

[7] Westbrook, “How Mexico and Central America’s Femicide Epidemic.”

[8] Glass, “Our-Pulitzer-Winning Episode.”

[9] Monica Campbell, “Why Biden’s Day One Promise to End ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program May Go Unfilled,” The World, January 12, 2021,

[10] Jaclyn Diaz, “Biden Suspends Deportations, Stops ‘Remain in Mexico’ Policy,” NPR, January 21, 2021,

[11] “US: ‘Remain in Mexico’ Harms Children, Families.”

[12] Campbell, “Why Biden’s Day One Promise.”

[13] Lynsey Addario, “Pregnant, Exhausted and Turned Back at the Border,” New York Times, November 27, 2020,,late%20one%20night%20last%20year.&text=Two%20days%20later%2C%20she%20was,to%20enter%20the%20United%20States.

[14] Nora Ellmann, “Immigration Detention is Dangerous for Women’s Health and Rights,” Center for American Progress, October 21, 2019,

[15] Ellman, “Immigration Detention.”

[16] Ellman, “Immigration Detention.”