Mexico and Central America fall short on protection as the US slams the door on asylum-seekers

Photo: United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard on July 21. Source: @SecPompeo on Twitter

July 23, 2019 – In the same week the United States announced a new rule effectively closing the door to asylum seekers at the southern border, the governments of Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador hosted officials from the Trump administration to discuss regional agreements that would outsource migration control in exchange for various financial and strategic incentives. 

Alianza Americas and other civil society organizations have warned that the new rule at the border, which practically eliminates the right for Central Americans traveling through Mexico to seek asylum in the US, will have a devastating impact on the region, as Mexico and Central America appear unprepared to deal with the consequences. Official government statements do not address how these countries will respond to the increase in asylum applications that will result from the new US policy.

The same day the new rule was announced, Trump administration officials traveled to Guatemala to agree on bilateral actions to control migration in the region.  On Friday, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard traveled to El Salvador to launch the “Planting Life” program,  part of a new development plan that promise to create 20,000 new jobs. On Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Minister Ebrard in Mexico to discuss an agreement between the two countries to control migrant flows in Mexico in exchange for reduced tariffs on Mexican goods imported into the United States. The same day, Secretary Pompeo continued his regional tour with a short visit with President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, where the two officials reiterated an interest in maintaining a close relationship to reduce migration, create jobs and address drug trafficking.

These visits reveal how eager the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico are to demonstrate their compliance with the United States’ demands to reduce migration flows in the region in exchange for economic concessions.  These agreements have faced pushback at various levels.  For Guatemala in particular, the Morales administration’s intent to cooperate with the United States runs counter to a recent decision made by the country’s Constitutional Court that prohibits the administration from signing a “Safe Third Country” agreement with the US.

Despite the court ruling, the unilateral action taken by the United States essentially imposes a third country agreement and exports a humanitarian crisis to its neighbors. 

Meanwhile, asylum-seekers traveling to the United States have been trying to figure out what the new rule will mean for them.  Currently, the rule is only being applied at one port of entry, and could be defeated in court pending injunctions that were filed shortly after the rule was announced. In response, civil society organizations are calling for governments to respect the right of individuals to seek protection in the place they feel most secure and to take steps to address the causes that have displaced them from their homes.

Mexico’s catering to US demands leads to rights violations

After his meeting with Secretary Pompeo, Mexico’s Foreign Minister celebrated the “significant advances” made in the migration agreement between the two countries.  However, ever since Mexico’s plan to contain migration was first introduced, there have been multiple incidents of human rights violations against migrants and asylum seekers.

Conditions in Mexican detention centers continue to cause concern.  On July 16, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) concluded that Mexico’s immigration agency violated the rights of six migrants being held in the San Luis Potosi detention center – four of the migrants were minors, and two were victims of sexual abuse.  One day later, CNDH announced another investigation following complaints of overcrowding and the death of a Salvadoran migrant in a center located in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon.  These conditions are replicated in detention centers throughout the country, which are not designed to hold people for multiple days.

Additionally, several police reports have shown an increase in migrant trafficking through the country.  Last week, three cargo trucks were intercepted carrying 378 people, including 87 minors, who were traveling through Mexico in inhumane conditions.  According to data from the National Institute of Migration, child migration increased 132% in the first quarter of 2019.  Militarized enforcement and lack of authorized transportation through Mexico has failed to deter migration and instead resulted in increased trafficking and use of dangerous methods of transportation.

Pressure from the United States and the ensuing responses from the Mexican and Central American governments to crack down on migration has undoubtedly led to more human rights violations against migrants.  The US waves around trade and investment deals in exchange for harsher policies and migrants face constant assaults on their rights to life, safety, freedom, and asylum. We continue to urge all the governments of the region to turn away from the misguided attempts to criminalize and punish migrants and instead re-focus on urgent humanitarian protection needs and the factors driving the exodus in the first place.