2019: a year of humanitarian crisis driven by the US Asylum Blockade

A wrap of the most important events from 2019 in the US -Mexico- Central America migration corridor.
Photo: Alianza Americas.

Migrant Protection Protocols or Remain in Mexico 

On January 25, 2019, Mexico announced its decision to collaborate with the US policy known as  Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico.”  Although Mexico argued that the policy was a unilateral action taken by the United States, both countries took actions that undermined the rights of people who seek asylum in the United States. Mexico agreed to re-admit people to its territory who had already entered the US and passed a credible fear interview.  Once returned, against their will, to Mexico, the asylum-seekers are forced to wait in Mexico under precarious conditions for their second hearing, when they are allowed to pass again into the U.S. In Mexico, asylum-seekers generally lack any government humanitarian support, do not have access to legal representation and are exposed to a host of security risks, or even deportation, if they stray away from the border. 

This policy was initially implemented in Tijuana and expanded to Mexicali in April. By May, more than 4.000 people had been returned to Mexico under MPP.  A new US- Mexico agreement, signed in June, expanded MPP to other border crossings, despite ongoing concerns about security in Mexico.  By June, more than 15.000 people were stuck in Ciudad Juárez. In August, the Mexican authorities started to offer transportation to the Mexican southern border for people stranded under MPP.  Civil society organizations denounced this action as a defacto effort to discourage people from persisting in their US asylum claims and accepting return to their countries of origin, a form of return expressly prohibited by the 1951 Asylum Convention. 

U.S. takes action to erode asylum and punish asylum seekers

In April, US Attorney General, William Barr, emitted a new rule (Matter of M-S) that required many more asylum seekers to remain in detention during their asylum process, rather than being released on bail. This was just one of the rules that eroded asylum protections.  It amplified the effects of the the metering policy, which limits the number of people who can seek asylum on any given day, which had initially been applied to a few border crossings in 2016, and was expanded along the entire US southern border in the ensuing years. 

On July 10, the US government made an additional interpretation of asylum rules that limit the right to asylum for people who have passed previously through another country on their way to the United States. According to the new rule, a person would have to apply first for asylum in the transit country, and have that request denied, prior to having the right to request asylum in the U.S.  The rule was temporarily suspended by a federal court, but began being implemented in September, despite pending litigation. 

The year ended with yet another attack on asylum, a new program called Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP).  In a new version of the “rocket docket” this program aims to process asylum claims in just a few days, with the goal of accelerating deportations.  It will begin with asylum seekers coming from Mexico, who currently make up 52% of those who are waiting to be admitted to the U.S., due to the metering policy. 

New Governments in El Salvador and Guatemala

Alianza Americas elections observers witnessed and commented on the historic February 3 presidential elections in El Salvador, which brought Presiden Nayib Bukele to power and ended decades of two-party rule in that country.  Guatemala also elected a new president, on August 11 Alejandro Giammattei won in the second round and will take office on January 14, 2020.

Anticipation of a “new” migration policy in Mexico meets reality of US Pressure

In Mexico, the first signs in the new year pointed to a shift in Mexican migration policy, with a more welcoming tone from new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.  Changes included a program for expedited humanitarian visa cards that allowed people to enter and transit the country and even provided for access to health care.  Despite ongoing concerns about Mexico’s institutional capacity to respond to the growing migration flows, this shift seemed to be a positive one, but by mid-march, pressure from the US proved too heavy to resist.  

In February and March, the Alianza Americas team conducted a series of learning exchanges with shelters, humanitarian aid and legal aid organizations that offer services to migrants and asylum-seekers and reported on a growing set of repressive policies in Mexico: increased restrictions on humanitarian visas that resulted in deportation of people with criminal records; attempts to break up large migrant caravans; and criminalization of people who offered assistance to the large flows of migrants and asylum seekers from Central America.

By mid-March, the negative effects of metering had become visible in new border crossings, Piedras Negras, for example. And shelters in Central Mexico also sounded the alarm about growing needs for services. 

Renewed humanitarian and human rights crisis

By April, large numbers of children, and of people coming not just from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but also from Cuba, Haití and Nicaragua, reflected the complexity of the displacement crisis, as well as the lack of capacity in Mexico to respond to growing humanitarian protection needs. Allegations of corruptions caused the Mexican Migration Institute to temporarily close its offices in Chiapas, interrupting the emission of humanitarian visa cards.  Reports began to surface of migrants who had been kidnapped or disappeared in Tamaulipas. 

Alianza Americas organized a virtual seminar on why so many young people are leaving Honduras and a meeting to discuss the factors that cause women to flee that country. Our goal was to raise awareness of the structural causes that were driving so many people to seek safety and dignity outside their country of origin. This same goal prompted a visit by María Silva Rentería, known as Sister Magda, Director of the CAFEMIN Women’s shelter and the REDODEM shelter network, who accompanied us on a tour of Michigan  to describe the realities facing migrants in Mexico.  In the second quarter, we co-organized a fact-finding delegation to Central America that produced a new report on the causes of forced migration

Mexico reverses its migration policy

In April the reversals in Mexican migration policy became even more visible:  sanctions for people who transport migrants who lack visas, a growing attitude of xenophobia, and local authorities who stop talking about humanitarian assistance and instead speak of threats from unauthorized migrants.  The federal government rhetoric continued to emphasize humanitarian protection, even as its actions turned to detention, containment,  and deportation.  The180 degree swing  included the deployment of the newly created national guard for migration enforcement actions. 

This trend came to a head in May, when it became clear that increasingly large numbers of Central Americans were seeking to be recognized as refugees in Mexico. The Mexican Migration Commission has extremely limited human and financial resources to address the growing demand, leading to concerns about their protection.  Also in May, the Committee Against Torture submitted its recommendations to Mexico and pointed out particularly its concerns about detention of asylum seekers.  In August, a shelter in Saltillo denounced ongoing persecution on the part of authorities, a pattern that continued throughout the year. 

Lack of Protections for Migrant Children

One of the biggest challenges for Mexico has been the lack of protections for unaccompanied migrant children, given the lack of legal instruments that specifically address the needs of children in migration.  Mexico tends to deport, rather than protect, unaccompanied migrant children. 

In May, we started to hear the tragic stories of migrant children who died in migration custody, both in the United States and in Mexico, pointing out the precarious health situation, and lack of access to appropriate care for people in migration detention. Alianza Americas organized a webinar on this issue in October.

US Externalizes Migration Enforcement in Agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador 

March ended with the announcement of the first migration cooperation agreement between the US and Central American countries, a move that sparked concerns about how these new arrangements might limit the rights to request asylum or humanitarian protections.  

In June, Interim Secretary of DHS, Kevin MacAleenan, signed an agreement with Guatemala that enabled U.S. homeland security agents to train counterparts in Guatemala and to assist that country in putting the breaks on migration flows.

July ended with a new asylum cooperation agreement between the US and Guatemala that further blocked the ability of asylum seekers to pursue protection in the United States. The agreement allows the United States to send asylum seekers to Guatemala where they will be required to request asylum, or to give up their asylum case and either seek another pathway to regular migration or return to their home countries. The Trump Administration siezed the opportunity to push through the agreement before outgoing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales left office.  Unrelenting pressure from the US quickly resulted in similar agreements with Honduras and El Salvador to the horror of human rights defenders, as well as an additional agreement on coordinated migration enforcement with El Salvador. The first few cases of individuals returned to Guatemala were reported in November.

Trump Tariff Threats toward Mexico drive policy

By mid-year, the Trump Administration escalated its demands for more actions from Mexico to stop migration flows by threatening to impose tariffs and other trade barriers on important Mexican goods.  In June, Mexico ceded to the pressure and accepted the US demands, including the use of the National Guard for migration enforcement, ramped up detention and deportation, and the extension of MPP across the entire border.  “Mexico will cease to be a transit country” announced Secretary of Foreign Relations, Marcelo Ebrard, as he took control of migration issues previously under the jurisdiction of the Interior Secretary.

In May, the UN regional economic cooperation body, ECLAC presented a development plan for the Central American region that aimed to create conditions for people to remain in their countries of origin and reduce the need for migration.  In June, the Lopez Obrador government began a series of investments, but also capitulated to US demands for increased enforcement.  

At the end of June, the death of Oscar Martínez and his daughter Valeria as they attempted to cross the river to the United States tragically illustrated the human cost of  migration policy failures across the region. This tragedy put in stark relief the risks and suffering of those seeking safety in the Central America- Mexico- US migration corridor, but little changed.   México, Guatemala, Hondura and el Salvador continued to accede to US demands over the next several months as the US slammed the door on asylum seekers. 

Another less-reported issue was the plight of African and Haitian origin asylum-seekers trapped in southern Mexico. Many of them mounted a protest to demand that they be allowed to continue their journey toward the U.S.  Finally, in December, the Mexican government did declare them “stateless” and grant transit permits. 

The Year in Numbers

  • More than 21,000 Cubans requested protection at the U.S. border.. 
  • On the first of may, there were more than 800,000 pending asylum requests in the US, and 2.428 unaccompanied children had requested refugee status in Mexico, an increase of 570% in comparison to 2017. By September, the number of pending asylum claims had grown to 1 million.
  • The year ended with 412 mass shootings  in the United States. It is worth remembering that the El Paso attack, specifically targeted people of Latin American origin. 
  • In the US, during the 2018-2019 fiscal year, 473.682 family members were detained in migration detention, compared to 107.212 from the previous year. In addition,  76.020 unaccompanied children were detained. In México, more than 40.000 unaccompanied children were apprehended.  At one year out from the large migrant caravans, displacement continues apace, despite all the repressive policies, because the causes of forced migration remain unaddressed and human rights violations remain a source of extreme and urgent concern