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Can Mexico Qualify as a Safe Third Country?

In 1994, attorney Susan Gzesh wrote in a report that Mexico was not a safe third country. Has anything changed?
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President Donald Trump takes part in the Third Annual Made in America Product Showcase on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 15th, 2019.

President Donald Trump takes part in the Third Annual Made in America Product Showcase on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 15th, 2019.

In May of 1994, Susan Gzesh, then a longtime lawyer and part-time lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, traveled to Mexico to look at the country's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. This was shortly before the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and cross-border migration was under debate. It also had not been that long since the United States had started to rely on Mexico to address the unprecedented influx of Central Americans fleeing civil wars in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador, leading to thousands of deportations. The U.S. "came to look upon Mexico as a land bridge for the rest of Latin America that might serve either as a gateway for unwanted migratory flows or as a buffer zone that would keep such flows from ever reaching U.S. borders," Gzesh wrote in her report.

In Mexico, Gzesh found a network of advocacy groups, lawyers, and academics working on issues related to the human rights of migrants leaving or passing through Mexico. She also found a series of systemic flaws and shortcuts in the Mexican authorities' reception of asylum seekers and refugees, including failure to communicate to migrants their right to apply for protection and a lack of "rational" standards in the processing of applications, which the report describes as "arbitrary and capricious." Ultimately, Gzesh concluded that Mexico could not be considered a safe third country for the purposes of a two-party agreement to return migrants safely under the standards of the U.S. asylum regulations.

More than two decades later, little seems to have changed. If anything, according to Gzesh, now a senior lecturer and executive director of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, conditions in Mexico have deteriorated. In an article published on the day the Trump administration announced the implementation of a new rule to make migrants passing through other countries ineligible for asylum in the U.S., she said Mexico cannot qualify as a safe third country.

"Mexico is a more dangerous country to cross now than it was 20 years ago," Gzesh says. "It was bad then because people would be extorted, and beaten, and raped. But it has just intensified ever since."

Recent reports and studies show that asylum seekers face several dangers in Mexico. As I reported earlier this month, migrants under the Migrant Protection Protocols have been victims of violence, from kidnapping to sexual assault, across multiple border cities. Still, according to an Amnesty International report, Mexican authorities continue to turn back asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) without considering their safety, "in many cases violating international and domestic law."

While the U.S. currently only has a safe third country agreement with Canada, the Trump administration has been pressuring the Mexican and Guatemalan governments to also concede to such a deal. For now, Guatemala's constitutional court has halted the designation by President Jimmy Morales, and President Donald Trump's rule will likely be challenged in court.

"The Trump administration is trying to unilaterally reverse our country's legal and moral commitment to protect those fleeing danger," Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, said in a statement. "This new rule is patently unlawful and we will sue swiftly."

In 1994, toward the end of her report, Gzesh posed the question: "Will the failings of refugee and asylum procedures in Mexico dissuade the United States from seeking to return asylum seekers there?" The answer is clearly no. "They are trying to switch safe third country to unsafe third country," she says now.