Outsourcing U.S. immigration policy to Mexico and Central America: Protection Failures and Backsliding

The Trump administration kept up its assault on people fleeing violence and seeking asylum this week, with renewed efforts to offload migration enforcement Central American countries.  Since Trump took office 32 months ago, the demonization of migrants and asylum-seekers has become a center-point of its policy agenda, driving an onslaught of measures to block people from requesting asylum, increase detentions, cancel humanitarian protections, and raid the federal budget to fund a border wall. A number of these efforts have been blocked by lower courts, but others have moved forward, such as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their asylum case is considered in the US. A new rule requires that asylum seekers attempting to cross at the southern border apply for protection in a country in transit to the United States, and for that application to be denied, before becoming eligible to apply for refuge in the U.S. The Trump administration has had to scale back a few programs after pushback from the courts and the public, such as the separation of children from their parents upon entering the United States, the deportation of migrants receiving medical treatment, and cooperation from state and local authorities in assisting ICE with migration enforcement.


Since Trump took office 32 months ago, anti-immigrant rhetoric from his administration has infiltrated the workings of the system and contaminated public opinion. There is currently a massive case backlog in immigration courts, with more than one million petitions waiting for review, resulting from lags in the system and the move away from a proritized approach to migration enforcement. There have been more than 385,000 new cases entering the system in just the last eleven months of the 2019 fiscal year (which began in October 2018). Instead of coming up with creative policy alternatives to streamline the immigration system, the U.S. fabricated a crisis with one goal in mind: to criminalize and persecute migrants and asylum seekers. At the same time, government officials find themselves facing ethical dilemmas as they become agents of anti-immigrant policies.  Border Patrol officials have described how their role has shifted from fighting crime into immigration enforcement in the midst of a humanitarian emergency. These agents, facing condemnation by the public, do not have adequate training, resources or background to deal with asylum seekers in a responsible manner.


Mexico and Central America have been offered a stark choice: comply with the United States’ anti-immigration agenda or face tariffs and sanctions. Realistically, Central American countries have little choice, with El Salvador being the most recent country to pander to threats from the U.S. On Friday, El Salvador’s Foreign Minister, Alexandra Hill, met with Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan and signed an agreement intended to deter the flow of migrants seeking asylum in the United States. The memorandum is similar to a recent agreement signed between Guatemala and the United States a few weeks ago, which allows the U.S. to send asylum seekers back to El Salvador and Guatemala to search for protection there. These countries are said to receive financial assistance to improve and strengthen their asylum systems. The agreement does not require migrants to transit through these countries before arriving to the United States’ southern border nor does it require that these countries are safe. Rather, these agreements are a desperate effort on the part of the United States to hand off its international responsibility as a country of asylum to countries with fewer resources, resulting in chaotic deportations that put asylum-seekers in even more vulnerable positions. Under the new system,  Central Americans at the US border are being sent to Mexico; Salvadorans, Hondurans and Mexicans to Guatemala; Guatemalans, Hondurans and Mexicans to El Salvador; Cubans, Haitians, Congolese and other nationalities to all of the above.


Mexican government rewards architect of migrant containment policies

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador formally decided that the country’s immigration policy will led by Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard instead of the Ministry of Governance (internal affairs). This decree creates a new inter-agency Commission (Comisión Interseccional de Atención Integral en Materia Migratoria) that is tasked with pulling together all the work around migration. López Orbador’s decision appears to be rewarding Ebrard for the recent agreements signed with the United States, which have transformed Mexico into a border wall preventing migrants from entering the U.S. These same agreements have jeopardized both the immigration system in Mexico and the rights of migrants. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) cited concerns about the new agreements in its August 13 request to visit the northern and southern borders of Mexico, but the government has not approved that visit, requesting a detailed plan of action from the agency as a pre-requisite.


“Migrants thrown to the wolves”

In Mexico, specifically in Tamaulipas, migrants have testified as victims of kidnappings. These happenings date back to 2009-2011, when violence against migrants had reached unprecedented levels. The Migrants Protection Protocols (MPP) forces migrants fleeing danger in their home countries to instead be sent to regions in Mexico, described by some as akin to being brought back into “the jaws of the wolf.” Media outlets have reported testimonies of migrants begging not to be sent back to Mexico, but who end up complying to avoid being separated from their families.


African migrants continue resisting 

People of African descent seeking asylum in the United States are continuing to resist the barriers imposed by the López Obrador administration. Mexican authorities consider approximately 979 African migrants to be “stateless”, further complicating their ability to adjust their  immigration status in Mexico. This population currently has two options: establish their immigration status in Mexico or exit the country through the southern border to Guatemala. Many of these individuals refuse to return to Guatemala due to the precarious economic and social problems of that country.  As we detailed in a previous blog, the blockade facing African migrants is due to a change in Mexican immigration policy resulting from agreements with the United States.

Migrants in Mexico originally seeking asylum in the United States are being kidnapped and extorted in Tamaulipas. According to a report by BBC Mundo, the situation dates back to 2009-2011, when complaints of human rights violations against migrants began to dramatically increase in that state.

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