Deaths, Detention, and Suffering: The results of immigration policies that deny migrants the right to seek asylum

July 2, 2019 – Last week Oscar Martinez and his young daughter Valeria died while trying to enter the United States to seek asylum and became a global symbol of the Trump administration’s inhumane border policies.  Sadly, this tragedy also reveals profound systemic policy failures across the region. 

The government of El Salvador failed Oscar and Valeria by not providing them with the opportunity of a life of dignity in their country.  Six Salvadoran administrations over the last three decades failed them by not creating conditions would make it unnecessary for people like Oscar and Valeria to seek protection and hope for a better future elsewhere.  The current government, which has been in power for only one month, failed them by taking a feeble posture against the abuses inflicted on migrants and asylum seekers by the Trump administration and for the shameful retraumatization the family endured after this tragedy. On Sunday, June 30, President Bukele acknowledged the mistakes made in the media coverage of the case of Oscar and Valeria, and assumed responsibility for El Salvador’s role in the tragedy.

The United States government also failed them through a militarized border that slams the door on asylum seekers.  The constant attempts to erode the right to seek asylum pushed Oscar and Valeria to cross the Rio Bravo in unsafe conditions.  In this way, their deaths symbolize the failure of migration restrictions that have caused ongoing human suffering for decades. 

The lack of awareness shown by migrants’ countries of origin, particularly in Central America, is also shameful. The governments of Honduras and Guatemala, the country of origin for five children who have now died in US custody, are equally indifferent to the plight of migrants. Guatemala is now playing an active role in the Trump administration’s enforcement policies by negotiating a “Safe Third Agreement” with the United States.  According to a representative from the UNHCR, Guatemala would have to undergo dramatic change before being able to adequately receive asylum-seekers from El Salvador, Honduras, or any other country.

The Mexican government has also been unable to meet the needs of migrants – including Central Americans, Haitians, and Africans – who are in detention centers and temporary shelters while waiting for their applications to be processed.  A Haitian woman’s pleas for food, water, and medical care for her daughter brings new evidence of Mexico’s inhumane policies and approach to migrant populations.

It is shameful that the Lopez Obrador administration in Mexico continues to allow the country to be the first wall faced by migrants seeking protection.  Over the last few days, 15,000 National Guard soldiers were sent to the northern border to detain migrants and put them in the custody of INM, Mexico’s immigration agency.  These actions have created a national and regional discussion around the enforcement role Mexican authorities have taken with migrant populations.

The consequences of militarization have also affected those on the front lines of protecting vulnerable people seeking refuge.  On June 25, civil society organizations denounced a terrible action in Agua Prieta, Sonora, where members of the National Guard demanded entrance to a migrant shelter without presenting warrants required by law.  The agents questioned the humanitarian work being carried out by the shelter and filmed one of the workers. Intimidating human rights defenders must not be part of the mandate for agencies that purport to “rescue” migrants.

With these misguided approaches being applied by countries throughout the region, we will unfortunately continue to see more tragedies like Oscar and Valeria.  Alianza Americas, as part of a transnational community of civil society organizations, will continue advocating for policies that prioritize the protection of human rights, and denounce actions that produce tragic and irreversible consequences.