Asylum-Seekers Stranded in Mexico Face Homelessness, Kidnapping, and Sexual Violence

The Trump Administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy is endangering tens of thousands of people and causing a humanitarian crisis at the border.

This process has demonstrably been failing to protect asylum seekers placed into the MPP from being exposed to harm in Mexico. In the months since it’s been in effect, numerous people were returned to Mexico after one of these interviews, even after they presented officers with evidence of kidnapping, extortion, rape and other harms they experienced there.

A recent report by Human Rights First provides examples of people who were sent to Mexico despite having suffered serious harm there. Two Cuban asylum-seekers who were kidnapped and raped in Ciudad Juarez were placed into the program, for example, along with a man who feared cartel assassins had followed him to the border after he testified against one of their bosses.

What is “Remain in Mexico?”

Stopping asylum-seekers from coming to the U.S.—particularly Central Americans who arrive at the southern border—has been a priority of the Trump Administration since it took office. Although our immigration laws provide a clear right for individuals fleeing persecution to seek asylum in the United States, the Administration has implemented one policy after another designed to make it impossible for them to do so. “Remain in Mexico” is a key part of this effort.

How does the policy affect asylum-seekers at the border?

Prior to the MPP, individuals who arrived at the border seeking asylum were entitled to remain in the United States to pursue their asylum claims as long as they established a “credible fear” of persecution – a low standard that required only a showing that they had a “significant possibility” of establishing eligibility for asylum. This determination was made by specially trained asylum officers, who conducted what are called “credible fear interviews.” Their ruling was then subject to review by an immigration judge.  People who established a credible fear were subsequently placed in regular removal proceedings to pursue their asylum claims before an immigration judge. 

Pending those proceedings—which could easily take a year or more—they were detained or released into the U.S., either on bond or subject to other conditions of release. While Trump Administration officials say that asylum-seekers often skip court hearings after being released, the data tells a different story. For example, a pilot program called the Family Case Management Program (FCMP) that was set up and funded by ICE in 2016 to assist asylum-seekers with support and guidance on their immigration case achieved a 99% attendance rate for court hearings and check-ins. Despite showing strong results, the FCMP was terminated in June 2017.

And according to Department of Justice statistics, between 2013 and 2017, 92 percent of people who’d filed asylum claims attended their court hearings, even without participating in the FCMP.

The MPP upended that process by forcing applicants to wait in Mexico while their claims move through the system rather than allowing them to remain in the United States. It also allows the government to send them there without once asking whether they could be in danger in Mexico.

Under the normal asylum process, officers have to proactively ask a migrant whether they fear persecution in their home country. If the person says they do, they’re provided with a “credible fear” interview. But people subjected to MPP do not receive the same level of protection. Under the new rules, the person must actively speak up on their own and affirmatively express to the examining CBP officer that they fear return to Mexico. But because most applicants do not even know being sent to Mexico is a possibility, they have no reason to make such a statement.   

And even when applicants do raise such fear, the MPP process is designed to make it excessively difficult for them to remain in the U.S. Instead of the “credible fear” standard that previously applied, they now have to convince an asylum officer that they are “more likely than not” to suffer persecution or torture in Mexico. Troublingly, The Intercept recently reported that CBP officers are often the ones running these interviews, rather than specifically trained asylum officers. The MPP process also lacks the safeguards that the “credible fear” process provides, including the right to consult with an attorney, the right to present evidence, and review of an asylum officer’s determination by an immigration judge.

This process has demonstrably been failing to protect asylum seekers placed into the MPP from being exposed to harm in Mexico. In the months since it’s been in effect, numerous people were returned to Mexico after one of these interviews, even after they presented officers with evidence of kidnapping, extortion, rape and other harms they experienced there.

Asylum Officers and Immigration Judges Have Criticized The Asylum Policy asylum officers have anonymously voiced their frustration over the new process, which they say is making them complicit in endangering asylum-seekers. In late June, the union that represents those asylum officers filed a brief in support of the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the MPP, saying that the policy “abandons our tradition of providing a safe haven to the persecuted.” And Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told a reporter that

the “tent court” system set up to hold hearings for asylum-seekers under the new rules are akin to something that might exist in “China or Russia.

At stake is whether the U.S. will continue to be a country that allows people fleeing persecution to find safe refuge inside its border. If it stands, the humanitarian crisis at the border will worsen, and people seeking safety will continue to find insecurity and danger instead.

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