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Asylum Seekers Report Being Victims of Violence While Waiting in Mexico

The "Remain in Mexico" plan promised humanitarian visas and work permits. But asylum seekers are being sent back to dangerous living conditions.
People walk back to Tijuana from San Diego at San Ysidro crossing port in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 2nd, 2019.

People walk back to Tijuana from San Diego at San Ysidro crossing port in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 2nd, 2019.

Less than a week after federal asylum officers called for the end of the "Remain in Mexico" policy, a report shows that thousands of asylum seekers—mostly from Central American countries—sent back to Mexico as part of the program face harrowing living conditions and potential violence, including kidnapping and sexual assault. In some instances, families are being separated, with children being held in the custody of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, while the adults are returned to Mexico.

The findings published by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday contradict previous assurances made by the Trump administration regarding the Mexican government's commitments in the deal, including providing access to health care and education. Similarly, under the Migrant Protection Protocols, as the "Remain in Mexico" plan is formally called, asylum seekers waiting for their court proceedings outside the U.S. should have the ability to apply for work permits and humanitarian visas. Last May, when deciding on a lawsuit challenging the plan, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judges referred to these protections when they ruled in favor of allowing the Trump administration to continue enforcing the program pending litigation.

According to the report, however, these promises haven't been kept, leaving asylum seekers with little means to eke out a living for what could be months or even years of waiting as their cases make their way through the immigration court.

"The U.S. government has advanced a dangerous fiction that asylum seekers returned to Mexico will have access to work and shelter and a fair chance in U.S. immigration courts," Clara Long, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report, said in a statement. "Instead, U.S. border officials are stranding mothers with small children and other vulnerable migrants in Mexican border cities where their safety and security are at risk."

So far, more than 15,000 people, including thousands of children, have been returned to places like Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, and Mexicali. With the announced expansion of the program, Mexican officials estimate that the number will go up to 60,000 by the end of August.

Instances of Violence and Abuse

Through interviews and observation of court hearings, the report documented 29 cases of harm to asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez alone. In one instance, a 23-year-old woman from Honduras said she and her five-year-old daughter were kidnapped and held for ransom by a taxi driver. And a 20-year-old Guatemalan mother reported being sexually assaulted after being returned to the Mexican town.

Asylum seekers also described situations in which Customs and Border Protection agents refused to return their personal belongings and documents.

Denial of Due Process

The MPP plan states that asylum seekers under the program are entitled to receive a list of legal service providers available in the area. But in Mexico, finding counseling can be a far more challenging task, with attorneys being overwhelmed and facing multiple barriers—from logistics to safety concerns—to providing services to clients.

Few Exemptions

On paper, the program allows for the exemption of vulnerable populations, including people with physical and mental disabilities and those "more likely than not" to face persecution or torture in Mexico. The report, however, points out that the Mexican government has noted several cases where senior adults, LGBTQ individuals, pregnant people, and those with symptoms of respiratory illness were returned to Mexico under the program.