Last Tuesday morning, Catardo Gómez stepped from the United States into Mexico, looked around briefly in confusion, and was immediately swarmed by microphones and cameras.

He’d made history simply by walking onto the other side of El Chaparral, a pedestrian border crossing connecting San Diego with Tijuana. Gómez was the first migrant sent back under a new Trump administration program, called the Migrant Protection Protocol, which requires asylum seekers to wait out their cases in Mexico instead of the U.S.

“I’m going straight to the place where I’m staying,” Gómez told the scrum of reporters before being hustled into a van by Mexican immigration agents. “I’m tired.”

Soon, more migrants from Central America like Gómez will be forced to make the trek back over the border as they wait for their asylum cases, which the US is required by domestic and international law to hear in full before it deports asylum seekers back to their home countries. If the program is fully implemented, the implications could be massive.

Most asylum seekers who enter the U.S. through the southern border, either by presenting themselves at a port of entry or crossing illegally and surrendering to Border Patrol agents, wait in the United States while their asylum cases proceed through the severely backlogged immigration court system, which can take months or years.

But now, a growing number will be forced to wait out the process in Mexican border cities, which are often beset by the same problems of violence and poverty that migrants fled in the first place. Some are likely to give up and return home as a result, and both supporters and critics of the program say such a deterrent effect is part of its design.

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