Immigrant Detentions and Asylum Blockades: Urgent Challenges in the Region

Photo courtesy Father Heyman Vásquez, director of the “Nadie es Extranjero” shelter in Huixtla, Chiapas, MX.

May 7, 2019  — Increased apprehensions and immigration detention in southern Mexico are creating a climate of fear among migrants. Civil society leaders worry that these measures signal a further weakening of the Mexican administration’s commitment to protect migrants.  On May 1st, a group of migrants travelling by train in the state of Oaxaca clashed with National Institute of Migration (INM) agents.  According to press reports, around 700 migrants defended themselves with rocks and sticks to avoid being detained.

The worrisome trend of clashes between migrants and migration officials is amplified by the intervention of security forces, such as the Federal Police, which is creating even more tension and violence.  Local newspapers are ratcheting up rhetoric that legitimizes xenophobia toward migrants.  This situation has the potential to turn increasingly ugly if the narrative is not challenged and discrimination currently taking place against migrants put to a halt.

Migrant detention centers remain a source of human rights concern–emotionally vulnerably migrants are being kept in over-crowded conditions with no information on the status of their immigration cases. INM announced that it would continue to strengthen enforcement measures in detention centers, which will only serve to further increase acts of violence and repression.

In Mexico, youth asylum applications and detention rates increase

According to data from the Mexican Commission to Assist Refugees (COMAR), 7,285 children submitted asylum applications in Mexico during the first quarter of 2019.  This represents a 316% increase in applications compared to the same time period in 2018.  The Mexican government has the obligation to ensure the rights of children throughout their journey and/or stay in Mexico.  These protections include that children should not be detained. Although the “General Law of Rights for Children and Adolescents” prohibits youth detention, civil society organizations have documented numerous cases of children in immigration detention.   As recently as January and February of 2019, INM reported 5,121 children in detention.  This is concerning as detention centers are ill-equipped to care for these children, exposing them to unnecessary risks.

As civil society actors, we must continue to insist that children traveling through Mexico are directed to appropriate specialized agencies that can care for their physical and emotional integrity.

Meanwhile, in the United States, over 800,000 people wait for asylum

Last week the Trump administration announced new instructions to change the asylum process, using the argument that needed to clear backlogs, but most analysts see the changes as part of an ongoing campaign to discourage persons from the Central American exodus from seeking protection in the United States. Changes include a monetary fee for submitting a request for asylum and prohibiting those who entered the country without inspection from obtaining work authorization.

There is certainly a problem with a backlog of asylum cases, largely due to inadequate resources for processing those claims. Most cases take years to be adjudicated and the latest reports indicate that over 800,000 people are currently waiting for their asylum cases to be processed in the United States. The new changes will not address that problem, but they will make life more miserable for people who are trying to exercise the internationally-recognized right for people who are persecuted in their home country to seek protection in a country where they feel safe.  As civil society organizations, we must join forces to fight against these outrageous violations of human rights.

Mexico’s National Plan for Development: how will it affect the migrant exodus?

On May 1st, the López Obrador administration presented a five year National Development Plan to the Mexican Congress.  Objective 1.7 of the plan addresses the theme of migration: “Implement a comprehensive policy dedicated to human rights, recognizing the contribution migrants make to a nation’s development.”  The document acknowledges the need to address the economic, political, and social structures that cause migration from Mexico and Central America, and the importance of improved processes for recognizing refugee status.  It reiterates an emphasis on ensuring that migration is voluntary and not forced. To accomplish this goal, the document outlines five strategies: 1) Establish a migration policy and address structural causes; 2) Promote a comprehensive policy for recognizing refugee status; 3) Implement differentiated models to address consular protections; 4) Strengthen consular services; 5) Establish cross-cultural and gender-based frameworks within migration policies.

The National Plan for Development represents a new opportunity to frame the public debate around migration.  The fact that it includes the theme of migration, as well as the needs of both migrants from Mexico and migrants who have arrived in Mexico, is encouraging.  The five strategies and funds that will be allocated to support them will be fundamental for supporting migrants and asylum seekers traveling through Mexico.

Up until now, the López Obrador administration has continued the actions of previous administrations to apprehend, detain, and deport migrants who are travelling through the country.  Civil society organizations are doing all they can to offer assistance to these populations, but they require support and funding to continue this vital work and to continue to advocate for new policy solutions such as those identified in the National Development Plan.

Active role of civil society

Last week, a civil society group in the south of Mexico presented a “Monitoring Report on Human Rights within the Central American Exodus in the Southeast of Mexico”.  The report vividly describes the violence, poverty, land grabs, and corruption that drive the exodus  from Central America. When people cannot find solutions to these problems, they view migration as the only pathway to live a dignified and safe life.  

This trend of forced migration shows no signs of stopping in the short-term, leading more and more persons to cross Mexico in adverse conditions, under an administration that desires a “safe and orderly” flow of migration but has not created conditions for doing so.

With this backdrop, the report makes recommendations to different actors in Mexico and the region.  The report calls on the Mexican Government to develop migration policies that are aligned with the recognition and protection of human rights for migrants.  The report also calls for the international community and other governments in the region to recognize the issue of forced displacement and commit to protecting people migrants and asylum seekers, as well as to monitor conditions of return and deportation.

The report recommends that the media commit to spreading responsible, timely and objective information, and that society in general respond to migrants with empathy, solidarity and hospitality.  Additionally, the report calls for civil society to continue observing, promoting, and discussing migrant rights.

All together, the report serves as a key tool for understanding what is happening to the Central American exodus in Mexico and the large gaps in protection from the Mexican government. It  gives us a window of opportunity for the federal and local government, academia, and civil society to develop a human rights-based approach to migration policies can have tangible results on improving social inclusion.