“Yes, there’s always the fear of being kidnapped,” said Óscar, a 30-year old asylum seeker who fled political persecution in Cuba in May 2019 and landed in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, where violent crime and gang activity are common.
Óscar, who used a pseudonym to protect his privacy, knew of asylum seekers in Mexico who had been kidnapped in Juárez and released after their families paid a $20,000 ransom. He himself had been extorted and threatened by Mexican authorities when he crossed Mexico’s southern border to the state of Chiapas, and he had been mugged at gunpoint by police officers in Juárez.
Óscar is one of the more than 75,000 asylum seekers, most from Latin America, whom the Trump administration has forced to gather at Mexico’s northern border — parts of it as dangerous as Syria and Afghanistan, according to the US State Department.
In a matter of a couple of years, Mexico has become a country of destination for refugees, a role imposed on it by the US.
Mexico fielded 2,000 asylum claims in 2014 — and 70,000 in 2019, said Silvia Garduño, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Mexico. “The fact that UNHCR has expanded so substantially in Mexico has to do with this.”
Mexico is woefully unprepared for refugees. As of May 13, there were at least 1,114 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping and other violent assaults against asylum seekers and migrants forced into Mexico by the Trump administration, according to Human Rights First, a US-based nonprofit group.
Human Rights Watch, which is also monitoring the situation, said that asylum seekers sent to the state of Tamaulipas are “routinely targeted for life-threatening violence including kidnapping, extortion and sexual assault.”
Migrants could be stranded in Mexico for years. The backlog in US immigration courts has reached an all-time high: As of June, unsolved cases had been pending on average for 759 days.
The pandemic has made the situation more perilous. In March, when the Trump administration shut down the Mexican-US border for nonessential purposes, it stopped processing asylum claims under its Migrant Protection Protocols.
The protocols, considered by critics to be a violation of domestic and international law, created what Doctors Without Borders deemed a “humanitarian crisis” even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, public-interest groups and UN agencies have had to help the Mexican government in preventing this crisis from becoming even more critical. Mexico now has the third-highest death toll from Covid-19 in the world, after the US and Brazil.
“I’m afraid of Covid because when you arrive in Mexico, they give you three months of health insurance — afterward, you are on your own,” Óscar said in a phone interview.
The UNHCR is now assisting the Mexican government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in avoiding an even worse Covid-19 outbreak among asylum seekers stranded at the northern border.
“We’ve ramped up our response in northern Mexico and are now offering services and support along Mexico’s northern border,” said Sibylla Brodzinsky, a spokesperson for Mexico and Central America of UNHCR, in a phone interview.
The agency offers basic hygiene kits to refugees, support to local authorities in identifying health and mental issues and information to asylum seekers about their legal options. It’s also deploying a small number of Refugee Housing Units — prefabricated 18 x 11 x 9-foot structures with steel frames and plastic roofs. Despite their name, these structures are not used for sheltering people, Brodzinsky explained. The units, $1,150 each, are used as quarantine or triage centers, where health professionals can determine a person’s medical condition.
The UN has already installed five of the units in Matamoros, a city where thousands of asylum seekers live in encampments that initially had no running water or cooking facilities. A similar number is scheduled for delivery in Tijuana and Reynosa, cities that also host thousands of asylum seekers.
“Traditionally, UNHCR has focused on Mexico’s southern border, but we enhanced our protection response on the border between Mexico and the US in Tijuana in 2018 and, a year later, in Ciudad Juárez and Mexicali,” Brodzinsky said.
The agency’s efforts in northern Mexico coincided with the Trump administration’s decision in April 2018 to turn away asylum seekers, forcing them to wait in Mexico until US Custom and Border Protection officers could process their claims. More than 11,000 asylum seekers were affected by this policy, known as “metering.”
Then, in January 2019, the Trump administration instigated the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the Remain in Mexico policy. Under it, the US has expelled more than 65,000 asylum seekers to Mexico while they await hearings before an immigration court. Most of the migrants come from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela.
In 2019, the UN agency opened an office in Monterrey, Mexico, to reach the eastern cities of Matamoros and Reynosa, in Tamaulipas state, a four-level-danger zone where no US citizen should travel, the State Department has warned.
The Migrant Protection Protocols were struck down last year by the Ninth Circuit in the US because they violate the due process of asylum seekers by expelling them without a credible- or reasonable-fear screening process. But the Supreme Court allowed the protocols to go ahead while on appeal.
The protocols constitute a violation of the Refugee Act of 1980 and the Immigration and Nationality Act as well as contravene international law under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, according to a report by the Hope Border Institute, a community organization working in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez-Las Cruces region.
So far, UN agencies, nongovernmental groups and the Mexican government have staved off a major Covid-19 outbreak among asylum seekers. As of early August, there were no officially registered fatalities in shelters alongside the country’s northern border, Brodzinsky said. But the real number — most asylum seekers rent rooms in private homes and may or may not be sick — is anyone’s guess.
“It was always a humanitarian crisis,” said Nicolas Palazzo, a lawyer with Las Américas, a nonprofit organization based in El Paso, Tex., that provides legal services to some of the 20,000 asylum seekers stranded in Ciudad Juárez. “It’s essentially a refugee camp, but without all the protections refugees are entitled to under international law.”
He added, “It’s only a matter of time before more and more people are infected.”
Trapped in danger
The Remain in Mexico policy was announced as a unilateral decision by the Trump administration, although Mexico’s government had discreetly agreed to go along with it. Mexico’s condition was that the US invest $10 billion in long-term development projects in southern Mexico and Central America, according to a 2019 book, “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration,” by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Shear.
However, “the US government did not make good on their offer of investment,” President Obrador said on June 12.
Instead, Mexico got support from the UN. In June 2019, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced that at least 14 UN agencies would participate in a plan to address the root causes of migration in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. The refugee agency would be central to that effort.
More immediately, individual refugees wait and wait.
Óscar, the Cuban asylum seeker, filed his case in June 2019. His next hearing is scheduled for September, when it will likely be postponed.
The odds are bleak. Even for the 6 percent of people who as of March had legal representation — the key to obtaining asylum or other legal immigration status — winning a case is extremely difficult under the Trump administration. Of 7,500 cases concluded in El Paso under Remain in Mexico’s first year, immigration courts granted asylum or other relief in only 15 instances.
Just four pro-bono lawyers work in El Paso, across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, the largest spot for asylum seekers expelled through the program, according to Palazzo. Only Las Américas lawyers, he added, go to Juárez to identify potential clients.
The vast majority of Juárez’s asylum seekers have waited for their court hearing “because they don’t have the resources to relocate to a safer part of Mexico,” Palazzo said. “It’s not an option for them to go back home, where they would very likely get killed or persecuted.”
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Maurizio Guerrero is an award-winning journalist who for 10 years was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).
Mexico welcomed the migrants from their southern border; at that point, Mexico became responsible for their troubles. The United States has not welcomed them and owes them nothing.