A single Honduran man walked across the pedestrian bridge from San Ysidro, California, back into Tijuana, Mexico, on Tuesday, where a horde of reporters and camera crews mobbed around him. With his return to Tijuana, Carlos Catarlo Gomez became the first asylum seeker forced to re-enter Mexico under the Trump administration's so-called "Remain in Mexico" policy, which mandates that asylum seekers wait in Mexico during the duration of their asylum court proceedings (which historically can take over three years).
Catarlo barely had time to speak to reporters as Mexican immigration officials shoved their way through the crowd, pulling him along with them before hustling him into a van and rushing off. With his exit, questions remained: What might happen to the Honduran asylum seeker next? What sort of visa might the Mexican government provide him? Will he receive any humanitarian aid as he prepares to wait in a foreign country for the indefinite amount of time? Will be able to confer with any legal representation as he waits in Mexico?
Governments on both sides of the border have been unable or unwilling to provide answers in the days since news first broke that the policy's implementation was imminent. Over the weekend, the Mexican government issued conflicting statements about its role in the Trump administration's plan. The official line from Mexican officials is that its government plays no part in the United States' Remain in Mexico policy. As late as last week, the director of the Mexican immigration authority declared he had never been formally notified of the policy. However, on Tuesday, Mexican officials were clearly cooperating with the plan as Cartarlo returned. And though the Mexican government has declared they will not accept the return of minors, people who are sick, or people who might be endangered in Mexico, Mexican officials have thus far been unable to answer questions about what will happen to asylum seekers returned to their borders. Catarlo, for his part, already had a one-year humanitarian visa to stay in Mexico, but government officials announced last week they intend to end the program that awards such visas.
Among these logistical concerns, human rights advocates have raised the alarm that asylum seekers might be in danger if forced to remain in Mexico. Though the official name of the policy is the "Migrant Protection Protocols," many have questioned whether or not Mexico is a safe country for asylum seekers: Less than 48 hours before Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen unveiled the policy on December 20th, two Central American teenagers were shot to death in Tijuana in what many have taken to be an anti-migrant attack. A survey of asylum seekers by Doctors Without Borders found that over 68 percent of migrants and asylum seekers traveling north toward the U.S. had experienced some form of violence in the course of their transit, and nearly one-third of migrant women had been sexually abused.
"We have concerns about asylum seekers being forced to remain in Mexico, for one because they're going to primarily staying in the Northern border region, and, for the most part, the border is a very dangerous region in Mexico, especially for migrants," says Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher and policy analyst for Human Rights First. "Migrants are very easy prey for traffickers, people who kidnap migrants and try to ransom them, and just societal violence against migrants."
A report released in July of 2017 by Kizuka's organization found that "refugees and migrants face acute risks of kidnapping, disappearance, sexual assault, trafficking, and other grave harms in Mexico." According to the report, migrants' vulnerability is due in part to anti-migrant sentiment, as well as other forms of identity based-persecution—for instance, migrants who are indigenous, black, queer, trans, female, and/or minors were found to be particularly vulnerable.
However, as Kizuka explains, much of the danger migrants face is simply due to their precarious situation, being homeless people in a foreign country. As a city, Tijuana has some of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere, and criminal violence disproportionately affects people who are poor, without homes, or otherwise vulnerable.
A memorandum released by the U.S. government on Monday stated that asylum seekers who feared being returned to Mexico would be evaluated for credible fear before being returned. However, asylum seekers will likely have to prove that they face a specific kind of persecution back into Mexico: for instance, anti-LGBT violence, or pursuit by cartels or other trans-national gangs. Migrants who worry about the threat of violence generally will almost certainly be returned anyway.
Dangerous as Mexico may be, the Remain in Mexico plan might not be undesirable to all asylum seekers. Prior to Trump's policy, people waiting out their asylum cases have often been subject to prolonged detention. Though federal law protecting the human rights of children prevents families from being detained indefinitely during their asylum proceedings, single adults—like Catarlo—can be forced to wait in detention during the entirety of their asylum proceedings. This means that even asylum seekers with valid claims—who will eventually be resettled in the U.S.—can still spend multiple years in jail as they wait for a judge to hear their case. Catarlo's alternative, had he not been returned to Mexico on Tuesday, could well have been a long wait in a detention cell.
"If this were a voluntary program, where people could decide to return to Mexico, and they had an understanding of how long they would [need to wait for their case], and they had access to an attorney—that they had some understanding about what they were getting into—maybe this would be OK," Kizuka says. However, as long as the U.S. does not give migrants a choice to decide between remaining in the U.S. and returning to Mexico, Kizuka says that he and Human Rights First firmly oppose the Remain in Mexico policy.
One of human rights advocates' main concerns is that the Remain in Mexico program will make it difficult, if not impossible, for asylum seekers to correspond with American legal counsel during their court proceedings. (A study by the American Immigration Council found that access to legal counsel makes asylum seekers' chances of gaining asylum five times greater.) Lawyers may be unable or unwilling to travel into Mexico to meet with their clients, and, as Kizuka explains, Skype and telephone calls are poor equivalents to an in-person meeting, especially when asylum seekers will need to share stories of personal and intense trauma with their lawyers.
As Catarlo crossed the border on Tuesday, a legal challenge to the Trump administration's policy seemed imminent. Indeed, Kizuka wonders if part of the reason the administration seemed to have so few explicit guidelines prepared for the new policy might be because the administration expects a court to enjoin the policy before long.
"At some level, the administration may have put little forethought and planning in creating this program because they believe a court will enjoin it anyway," Kizuka says, explaining that the policy, even if blocked by a court, still offers a symbol to Trump's supporters of the lengths the president is willing to go to deter immigration.