by Elyssa Pachico and Maureen Meyer
A year ago this week, the U.S and Mexican governments committed to a migration agreement that has since made the humanitarian disaster at the U.S.-Mexico border and in southern Mexico much worse.
Under the agreement, Mexico deployed its newly created National Guard to its southern and northern borders, cracked down on migrants hoping to reach the United States, and allowed for the expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, known as “Remain in Mexico”), forcing thousands of asylum seekers to wait in dangerous Mexican border towns for their U.S. immigration hearings.
Moving forward, these harmful and chaotic policies are likely to endure under the false pretext that they’re needed to contain further spread of the COVID-19 virus and to prevent mass migration to the United States.
Migrants and asylum seekers are not responsible for the pandemic. The blame lies with insufficient testing, a slow response, and poor coordination by both federal governments. If the United States contines to enforce xenophobic and unlawful migration policies, and if Mexico continues to act as a virtual wall for migrants and asylum seekers, it won’t result in better protections against COVID-19. Instead, the brutal treatment of migrants and asylum seekers will continue to create situations that exacerbate public health risks, foster confusion and uncertainty, and endanger those exercising their right to seek protection.
Under the June 7, 2019 migration agreement—which the Mexican government agreed to after President Donald Trump tweeted threats to impose punitive tariffs on all imported goods—Mexico committed to increasing immigration enforcement actions and allowing for the U.S. government to expand MPP throughout the U.S.-Mexico border. In turn, the U.S. government committed to continue working with Mexico and regional and international partners to address the underlying causes of Central American migration.
The impact of this deal has included:
1) Exposing migrants and asylum seekers to increased safety and public health risks
In the months following the agreement, Mexico apprehended a record number of people, according to the available official data. However, this increase came with widespread reports of authorities detaining and deporting migrants without due process, a problem that has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The crackdown on migrants resulted in months of dangerous overcrowding in Mexico’s detention centers, forcing migrants to travel through more remote routes where they are more vulnerable to crime and abuse. The deployment of the National Guard, a militarized federal security force, to participate in migration enforcement—a role for which it had little or no training—resulted in multiple allegations of excessive use of force against vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers.
Past experiences show that this hardline approach may result in temporary decreases in regional migration, but ultimately smugglers don’t go out of business. And while the COVID-19 pandemic is currently having a major impact on mobility and migration worldwide, it has not completely stopped the movement of people fleeing violence and dangerous living conditions, according to the United Nations.
The border and migration restrictions and the economic downturn seen under COVID-19 doesn’t mean that long-term migration trends will grind to a halt; indeed, we predict an increase in migration as governments begin to lift restrictions. This makes it all the more urgent that both the United States and Mexico move away from deterrence-first migration policies that place migrants and asylum seekers at risk and curtail their ability to seek protection.
“Remain in Mexico”
Under the U.S.-Mexico migration deal, the expansion of MPP placed tens of thousands of asylum seekers in danger. According to Human Rights First, as of May 2020, there have been at least 1,114 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum seekers forced to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexico.
Mexico committed to allowing the expansion of the program despite experiencing its most violent year on record in 2019. Some of the Mexican border cities accepting returns of asylum seekers from the United States rank among the most violent in the world. According to a January 2020 estimate by human rights groups, U.S. authorities have sent some 27,500 asylum seekers to the Tijuana-Mexicali region. Tijuana was the world’s most violent city last year, according to a yearly ranking by a Mexican research organization. Ciudad Juárez, where the U.S. government has sent at least 18,000 non-Mexicans to await their asylum hearings, ranks as the world’s second-most violent city, according to that same study.
Asylum restrictions in the context of COVID-19
By agreeing to expand MPP under the U.S. migration pact—resulting in the proliferation of overcrowded migrant camps with poor sanitary conditions in Mexican border towns—the Mexican and U.S. governments created the conditions for a possible public health disaster under the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerningly, virus outbreaks have already been reported in Mexico’s largest government-run shelter in Juárez and in other shelters in Mexican border towns.
Combined with other harmful migration policies that the Trump administration has imposed under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic—such as rapidly expelling Mexican and Central American migrants that reach the United States and almost completely banning asylum at the southern border—MPP has intensified the total uncertainty faced by migrants and asylum seekers currently stuck in limbo in Mexican border towns. Instead of an orderly, well-regulated migration and asylum process, many migrants and their lawyers face a lack of clarification on when they need to show up for their U.S. immigration court dates.
2) Pushing Mexico’s asylum system to the brink of collapse
Mexico’s compliance with the Trump administration’s demands for more punitive migration enforcement put Mexico’s asylum system under unprecedented strain.
In 2019, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, COMAR), received 70,302 asylum requests, more than twice the number received in 2018. Between January and May 2020, the refugee agency received another 19,211 requests. While the Mexican government has taken initial steps to strengthen its asylum system, COMAR remains understaffed and under-resourced, resulting in a significant backlog of cases.
In sharp contrast to the United States, COMAR continues to receive asylum requests during the pandemic, but it has ceased processing cases. This has added to the time asylum seekers must wait for their cases to be resolved, often in precarious conditions in southern Mexican towns that are ill-equipped to support asylum seekers or to ensure they have adequate access to public health services.
3) Pushing Mexico’s newly-created National Guard into a role it is not equipped to play
In 2019, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration created the National Guard to assume federal policing functions in Mexico.
In this role, the National Guard is responsible for combating organized criminal groups and other policing duties such as guarding oil pipelines to searching bags on the Mexico City metro, and supporting state-level investigations into homicides or other crimes. Although on paper the National Guard was established as a civilian force under civilian leadership, in practice the force is almost completely staffed, funded, and directed by Mexico’s armed forces.
Thanks in part to pressure from the Trump administration, the Mexican government has diverted much of the National Guard’s manpower and resources away from the force’s primary security functions so that it can play a stepped-up role in migration enforcement operations—occasionally with violent results. Most Guard members are drawn from the military, and migration enforcement is traditionally not an area that should involve soldiers, given human rights concerns and the military’s lack of training in interacting with vulnerable populations.
Under the June 2019 U.S.-Mexico migration agreement, President López Obrador embraced Mexico’s role as an immigration enforcer, a far cry from the humanitarian approach he promoted during his government’s first few months in office.
The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant and anti-asylum approach, and once again the Mexican government has not pushed back. In March, under the pretext of the pandemic, U.S. agents began to send Central American migrants apprehended at the southern border back to Mexican border towns instead of their country of origin, exposing them to additional risks. And Mexico agreed to admit them. This approach goes against the recommendations of public health experts, who outline ways in which it is possible (and more sensible, from a public health perspective) to pursue policies that uphold the right to migrate and to seek asylum in the midst of the pandemic.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Trump administration should not use COVID-19 as a pretext to deepen the harsh enforcement and anti-asylum policies reflected in the U.S.-Mexico migration agreement, or to promote other xenophobic, ineffective migration policies that are currently endangering countries across the Western Hemisphere. For its part, rather than becoming an extension of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement priorities, the Mexican government should reverse course and take actions to protect, not endanger, the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.