Mexico pushes back asylum seekers attempting to leave its southern border zone
Several hundred migrants from Haiti and other countries sought to leave Mexico’s border zone with Guatemala, where many are confined while awaiting outcomes of their asylum cases. Three times in the past week, their northward progress was blocked—at times brutally and on camera—by personnel from Mexico’s migration agency (National Migration Institute, INM) and its National Guard (a militarized police force, created in 2019, under Army control).
Each time, authorities allowed small “caravans” to walk several dozen miles up the highway that follows the Pacific coast west and north, away from the Guatemala border, through Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas. Each time, authorities then swept in and apprehended migrants as they rested, or sought to block them further up the highway. No significantly sized group of migrants managed to make it more than about 110 kilometers into Mexico. (Despite several attempts, no “caravan” of migrants has succeeded in traveling through Mexico’s southern border zone since January 2019.)
The migrants are chiefly from Haiti, but were joined by Central Americans, Cubans, Venezuelans, and other countries—even apparently some from Equatorial Guinea. Many are parents with children; some are unaccompanied children. Most have traveled through many countries, including all of Central America, only to have Mexico block their progress near its southern border.
The groups sought to leave Tapachula, a city of about 350,000 people near the Guatemala border in Chiapas’s Pacific lowlands. There, thousands have applied for asylum in Mexico with COMAR, the Mexican government’s refugee commission, whose Tapachula office is its busiest in the country by far. Through July, COMAR had received 64,378 asylum requests throughout Mexico; of those, 45,072 were filed in Tapachula. (COMAR’s year-to-date asylum request total jumped to 77,559 through August, the agency’s director, Andrés Ramírez, just revealed. That’s a new record: eight months into 2021, Mexico has now received more asylum requests than in any full year.)
Though Mexican law requires COMAR to issue an asylum decision within 45 working days, a pandemic emergency measure has waived this deadline. The badly backlogged agency now takes many months to decide cases. “Currently, if someone wants to apply for asylum, they receive an appointment for the month of January,” reports Alberto Pradilla of the online news outlet Animal Político. “There’s a historic arrival of migrants to Mexico as a result of the systemic crises in their countries of origin, and the Mexican government has not strengthened the migration system in terms of budget and personnel,” Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center (recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award) told Chiapas Paralelo.
While awaiting a decision on their asylum applications, migrants receive a document that allows them to be present only in the state where they submitted their claim. . This is a difficult part of Mexico in which to be confined: Chiapas is the poorest of Mexico’s 32 states, with three-quarters of its population living below the poverty line. Few opportunities exist for migrants to generate an income while they remain there. Chiapas Paralelo estimates that 5,000 Haitians, and 3,000 Central Americans and Cubans, currently find themselves in this position in Tapachula. This number vastly overwhelms shelter space, and many are living in severely substandard conditions.
Many of the migrants trapped in Tapachula say they aren’t necessarily seeking to enter the United States: they would be content to settle in Mexico, but in a part of the country—like the more economically dynamic north—where employment opportunities exist. “The important thing we need is to leave Chiapas, because in Chiapas there is no work,” a migrant told veteran Chiapas-based journalist Ángeles Mariscal. “In Chiapas there is no way to live, the people are treating us like animals.”
The Haitian and other migrants marooned in Tapachula have begun gathering, usually near COMAR’s offices, to protest their situation. The protests became larger in size during the last week of August. Then, on the morning of August 28, a group of several hundred left the city on foot, walking up the Pacific coastal highway that leads into Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico.
This group walked about 42 kilometers, getting as far as the town of Huixtla, Chiapas before being captured and broken up. On the road, INM agents backed up by riot gear-clad National Guard personnel surrounded and blocked the migrants’ passage. Their methods were often brutal: mobile phone videos showed a Haitian man being pushed to the ground by guardsmen’s riot shields as he held his two-year-old baby, and an INM agent kicking another man in the head as others restrained him on the ground. It appears that one of the individuals restraining the man was Jorge Alejandro Palau, the director of Tapachula’s Siglo XXI facility, often described as the largest migrant detention center in Latin America.
A second group of migrants got through authorities’ roadblocks and made it to the town of Mapastepec, Chiapas, 107 kilometers from Tapachula. On the morning of September 1, as the migrants sought to rest in the town’s central square, INM and National Guard personnel surrounded and arrested them, chasing many throughout the town.
A third group left Tapachula on September 1, only to be detained and dispersed, in Mapastepec and other towns, within about 24 hours. INM agents raided hotels in towns along the migrant route, and pursued them through rural-dwellers’ fields and yards. A few migrants confronted the agents, throwing stones. Journalists and human rights defenders in Mapastepec reported “aggressions” at the hands of authorities; National Guard personnel used their shields to block reporters’ attempts to record video of what was happening.
Mexican authorities have not revealed what happened to the migrants captured in these operations. Haitians and others may have been “brought to Tapachula and left on the street in the middle of the night,” the Associated Press reported. Many captured Central American migrants were deported into Guatemala.
Video images of Mexican authorities beating and roughing up migrants generated outrage all week. “These painful images confirm the Mexican government’s turn into full-on immigration deterrence at the behest of the U.S. government,” columnist Leon Krauze wrote at the Washington Post. At VICE, Emily Green noted the contrast between the Mexican government’s high-profile reception of over 100 refugees from Afghanistan, and its treatment of other asylum seekers—more than 75 percent of whom had been granted refugee status by COMAR through July of this year.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addressed the issue at a September 1 press conference. “The human rights of migrants haven’t been violated,” López Obrador insisted. “The exceptional case of a few days ago, in which two immigration officers kicked a Haitian citizen, was dealt with that same day. They were dismissed and placed at the disposal of the corresponding internal control body.”
Three UN agencies issued a statement on August 31 calling the video images “profoundly concerning,” noting threats to human rights defenders in the context of the Chiapas operations, and calling on Mexico to hold accountable all who committed abuses. “What happened in Chiapas last weekend is yet another example of the need to strengthen COMAR’s capacity for asylum processes, and to establish migratory alternatives that guarantee the human rights of migrants,” reads the document from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In a separate statement, the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH) called out Mexican forces’ excessive use of force and cautioned against cracking down every time migrants travel as a group.
President López Obrador upheld the policy of containing migrants “as far as possible in the south, southeast of the country. Because allowing them to enter the territory completely, to cross our country, means many risks of human rights violations, especially on the northern border.” The Mexican president repeated his call on the United States to collaborate on a strategy that addresses the root causes of why people are migrating, declaring his intention to send a letter next week to U.S. President Joe Biden laying out a proposal.
Mexico’s Interior Department, which includes the INM, indicated that it is communicating with UNHCR and Mexico’s Bishops’ Conference regarding plans “to establish a humanitarian encampment in the state of Chiapas, where attention would be offered to the migrant population of Haitian origin.” The Bishops’ Conference put out a statement clarifying that it received an “encampment” proposal but has not necessarily agreed to support it. UNHCR stated that this Mexican government proposal was one of several issues that they discussed with regard to attending to the Haitian population.
The pushback operations in Chiapas drew fresh attention to the role of Mexico’s military in the effort to keep migrants from reaching the United States. The recently created National Guard is currently made up of more than 75 percent active-duty military personnel; while he originally billed it as a civilian force, President López Obrador announced plans in June to make it a branch of the Army.
On August 27, the day before alarming videos of migrant abuse would be recorded in Chiapas, Mexico’s defense secretary, Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval, told reporters that “detaining all migration” is now the armed forces’ principal mission in Mexico’s border zones. Documents accompanying President López Obrador’s annual September 1 “state of the union” presentation reveal that, as of June, Mexico had deployed 6,244 troops and 1,449 guardsmen to its southern border states on migration control missions. The document claims that military and National Guard personnel captured 134,932 migrants. Mexico’s migration agency, the INM, reports capturing 157,919 during the 12 months ending in July 2021—so either there is a lot of double-counting, or the armed forces have been involved in the vast majority of Mexico’s recent nationwide migrant apprehensions The Iberoamerican University found, based on information requests, that 78 percent of migrant detentions between June 2019 and December 2020 were at the hands of soldiers or members of the National Guard.
Remain in Mexico’s “awkward” restart
The Biden administration continues to reckon with how to comply with a Texas judge’s order—upheld, for now, by the Supreme Court on August 24—that it reinstate a policy that it bitterly opposes. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys general of Texas and Missouri, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk has forced the Biden administration to carry out “good faith efforts” to revive the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico” program. Launched by the Trump administration in December 2018, this program forced more than 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexican border towns, where many were left homeless, without income, and preyed upon by criminals.
As a candidate, Joe Biden had pledged to undo the controversial policy, and he issued an order suspending it on Inauguration Day 2021. Now that his Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must reinstate it, next steps are not clear, a Washington Post analysis finds. “Early indications suggest the controversial Trump-era policy may not return on a large scale,” report Nick Miroff and Mary Beth Sheridan. Judge Kacsmaryk has required the Biden administration to file monthly reports, with the first one due September 15, on its “good-faith efforts” to restart the program.
“I have talked to DHS and of course digesting this Supreme Court decision, my understanding is that they will have to start implementing it,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district includes a busy section of the Texas-Mexico border, told reporters. “They are waiting on those instructions as they are working in the D.C. headquarters on that as I talked to the judges that will have to be involved with this, and they are also getting ready to start getting this and coordinating with DHS.”
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, an ardent proponent of Remain in Mexico, accused the Biden administration of “slow-playing” the program’s re-establishment. On a visit to the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border zone, Cruz recounted a meeting with local Border Patrol leadership. “We asked what have you done to comply with the order? They said, ‘nothing.’ They said they were instructed to do nothing. Their political leadership instructed them to do nothing.”
Whether, and at what scale, Remain in Mexico might restart depends on the government of Mexico, which would once again have to agree to receive a large population of non-Mexican citizens. Two Mexican officials interviewed by the Washington Post signaled willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government on managing migration and the border, including “technical talks” about a Remain in Mexico restart. However, these officials noted that “their capacity to take back more U.S. asylum seekers and migrants remains limited… and they regard other enforcement tools and policies to be more effective.”
The López Obrador government’s first ambassador to the United States, Martha Bárcena—who retired earlier this year—speculated that a revived Remain in Mexico would be smaller. “Mexico does not have the resources to take in asylum seekers on an indefinite basis, as it did last time,” she told the Post, adding, “the lesson from the last time was that the U.S. doesn’t keep its promise to rapidly process their cases.”
Though he “has not engaged in any conversations with Mexican counterparts on the topic,” Sen. Cruz called on the Biden administration to bully Mexico into agreeing to a robust restart of Remain in Mexico. “In particular, President Trump threatened to impose 25 percent tariffs, which would have a massive economic impact on Mexico. That threat got their attention. Absent that threat, there’s no way they would have agreed to it.”
Between February and the Supreme Court’s upholding of Judge Kacsmaryk’s decision, the Biden administration worked with UNHCR to parole into the United States 13,256 migrants with pending asylum applications who had been forced to remain in Mexico, the Arizona Republic reported. Another 3,500 migrants had registered with UNHCR, 2,000 of whom were still having their eligibility verified and 1,500 of whom were approved and awaiting their dates to enter the United States. Because of the courts’ decision, these 3,500 people must now remain in Mexico.
In California, the local ACLU filed to revive a January 2020 preliminary injunction that had required guaranteed access to counsel for migrants subject to Remain in Mexico in immigration courts within the jurisdiction of the federal courts’ Ninth Circuit (California and Arizona). The courts had vacated this injunction in June, when the Biden administration had formally ended Remain in Mexico.
“Of all the draconian measures instituted by former President Donald Trump, this was among the worst—right up there with separating kids from their parents,” reads a strong editorial in the San Antonio Express-News. “Immigration advocates are urging the administration to appeal the ruling, but since the high court deemed the suspension of the policy ‘capricious,’ the Department of Homeland Security may be able to solve the problem by fashioning a clearer statement about its intentions.”
A troubling report documents CBP abuses in Arizona
A report from two Catholic human rights advocacy groups details 35 troubling cases indicating “a pattern of abuse by Customs and Border Protection (CBP)” in the Arizona section of the U.S.-Mexico border. Due Process Denied, produced by the Washington-based NETWORK and the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona-Sonora (KBI, recipient of WOLA’s 2017 human rights award), finds a “systemic culture of abuse of migrants.”
KBI operates a shelter and kitchen in Nogales, Mexico near Arizona’s busiest border crossing, about an hour and a half south of Tucson. Many of the migrants in their care have just been released from CBP’s custody, or otherwise interacted with the U.S. border agency after being deported, expelled under the Title 42 pandemic measure, forced to “remain in Mexico,” or prevented from asking for asylum at a port of entry.
When these migrants describe suffering abuse at the hands of U.S. personnel, KBI documents it, and often files complaints with CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility or DHS’s office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. KBI stands out among border groups for the extent and detail of its abuse documentation.
The Due Process Denied report highlights 35 cases in Nogales from October 2020 to mid-August 2021. “The abuses range from migrants being denied due process, such as not given an opportunity to seek asylum or destruction of documentation, to outright physical violence.” NETWORK and KBI divide them into five categories: “1. Immigrant claims of credible fear dismissed; 2. Immigrants being forced to sign documentation and then expelled; 3. Theft of documentation; 4. Medical negligence; and 5. Physical abuse.”
For the most part, the 35 incidents the report documents are not spectacular, headline-grabbing events like shootings or severe beatings. Instead, they point to an insidious pattern of “everyday” abuse that, because it is so frequent, appears to be embedded into the agency’s culture.
A few examples from the report:
- “A Salvadoran woman, her 10-year-old daughter, 1-year-old son, brother, cousin, and cousin’s daughter, entered the United States on April 17, 2021. They saw a Border Patrol truck arriving and waited for it to arrive so they could ask for asylum. The Border Patrol agent who got out of the truck was enraged. He pulled a gun on the mother and family. He berated them, calling them ‘damned criminals,’ ‘rats,’ ‘terrorists,’ and ‘criminals,’ as they cried and asked for asylum.”
- “At the Tucson border facility, the [Guatemalan] woman approached an agent asking how they should apply for asylum and informing him that her son has a medical condition and needs medical care. She showed him the documents (a diagnosis, x-rays, etc.) to prove that her son was in need and that he needed surgery within the next two months. The agent took the documents and threw them in the thrash. When she went to retrieve them from the trash, he took them again and told her ‘they belong in the trash.’”
- “Everyone was asked to walk across the border to Mexico. He [a Guatemalan man] asked the agents why he was being sent to Mexico when he was Guatemalan. An agent hit him with a baton on the knee and threatened to hit him on the head.”
- “At the Tucson facility, she [a Guatemalan woman] told an agent she was afraid to return to Guatemala and she tried to show documentation of violence, the death certificates of her family members killed by organized crime. The CBP agent told her that her documents were likely fake because she comes from a ‘corrupt’ country.”
- “The border patrol agents who arrested them were driving a four-wheeler. They drove really fast, right towards the immigrants. The immigrants had to jump out of the way to avoid being run over.”
Though KBI is meticulous about documenting testimonies and filing complaints, the organization sees almost no evidence that CBP and DHS internal affairs or disciplinary mechanisms are functioning. Impunity for these “everyday” abuses is near total:
“Of the thirty-five complaints in this report, none of them resulted in a response to KBI or the complainant about disciplinary action taken against the perpetrators of these abuses. This means agents who attack migrants may still be on the job, repeating these same violations.”
- San Diego-based 9th Circuit Judge Cynthia Bashant ruled September 2 that CBP’s practice of “metering” is unconstitutional. The term refers to posting officers on the borderline to turn back asylum seekers and limit the daily number who may approach a port of entry. The ruling against metering is the result of a suit brought four years ago by Al Otro Lado, a San Diego and Tijuana-based legal services organization (for which WOLA is among several groups that provided declarations). The decision came despite Biden Justice Department lawyers arguing for the ability to keep metering as a policy option, even as they said that the administration was reviewing its use. “The judge said she would issue her decision and then ask for more briefings on how to move forward based on that decision,” the San Diego Union-Tribune had reported. It’s not clear what will change right away, since the Title 42 pandemic policy continues to expel a large number of asylum seekers.
- Claudia Marcela Peña, a mother from Boyacá, Colombia, flew to Mexico with her two children in late August with the intent of crossing the border to reunite with her husband in the United States. Their smuggler apparently abandoned them in Arizona. Ms. Peña and her oldest child died, most likely of heat exposure. Only her two-year-old child was alive when border agents found them.
- As growing numbers of Brazilian citizens have been flying to Mexico then being apprehended by Border Patrol, Mexico has started denying entry at its airports to Brazilians whose passports lack a U.S. tourist visa, even when the Brazilians intend to visit Mexico. Researcher Charles Pontes Gomes reports that this is happening about 600 times per month on average.
- Texas’s state legislature approved $1.8 billion in new spending for National Guard troops, construction of fencing, and stepped-up arrests and imprisonment of undocumented migrants charged with trespassing. “The money is in addition to the $1 billion for border security initiatives approved by lawmakers during this year’s regular legislative session and $250 million in state funding Abbott used to kick-start construction of his border barrier,” reported the Austin American-Statesman. Taken together, that’s about $105 from each of the 29.2 million people residing in Texas. Some Democratic state legislators from south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region voted for the money, which funds projects started by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. “I have talked to many of my constituents in Cameron and Hidalgo County… and I can tell you the vast majority of those people want border security and want the wall, believe it or not,” Brownsville State Sen. Eddie Lucio (D) told the Texas Tribune.
- 344 organizations, including WOLA, signed a letter to President Biden and other top officials calling for a halt to deportation flights to Haiti, which since July has endured a presidential assassination, an earthquake, and a tropical storm. In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the Defense Ministry reported apprehending and deporting 178,000 Haitian citizens in the past 12 months.
- During a visit to Mexico, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, voiced concern about three U.S. policies: Title 42 expulsions, flights expelling non-Mexicans to southern Mexico, and the court-ordered revival of Remain in Mexico, a program she called “a threat to the asylum system.”