WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

16 Jul 2019 | Press Release

New U.S. Third Country Asylum Rule Infeasible, Inhumane, and Illegal

Mexico, Guatemala Lack Systems to Provide Protection to High Numbers of Asylum Seekers  

Washington, DC—A new Trump administration rule to go into effect on July 16 will bar anyone who has traveled through a third country from applying for political asylum at the U.S. southern border, with very few exceptions. In practice, this new Interim Final Rule (IFR), issued by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, means that Central Americans traveling by land to apply for asylum in the United States will instead be compelled to apply in Mexico or Guatemala. This would apply not only to Central Americans, but also to all other asylum seekers who have traveled through the region to request asylum in the United States, thereby leaving them at tremendous risk. 

“This rule change is the latest in a string of aggressive and unlawful programs proposed by the Trump administration that seek to drastically curtail the rights of people seeking asylum in the United States,” said Geoff Thale, Vice President for Programs at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Beyond the significant questions regarding its legality, this rule change also creates greater risks for migrants in transit by placing the burden of asylum protections on countries like Mexico and Guatemala.”

The announced rule does not take into account the harsh realities on the ground in Mexico and Guatemala, the two countries through which the majority of asylum seekers will pass on their way to the United States. Guatemala has an underdeveloped political asylum system, so those fleeing conditions in other countries are normally not able to apply for asylum there. In the first five months of the year, Guatemala received just 172 asylum requests; the country has received some 1,300 requests since 2002. Guatemala, meanwhile, faces serious challenges of violence, insecurity, and political stability. In fact, in recent months, the largest number of asylum seekers apprehended at the U.S. border have been Guatemalans; its homicide rate, while lower than in earlier years, is still six times that of the United States.  

“It flies in the face of common sense to imagine that Guatemala can absorb and protect people fleeing violence and persecution in other countries in Central America,” said Adriana Beltrán, Director for Citizen Security at WOLA. “Returning migrants and asylum seekers from the U.S. border back to Guatemala on the theory that they can apply for and receive asylum there, and then live safely there, is beyond unrealistic.”  

The situation for asylum seekers in Mexico also presents challenges. Mexico has an asylum system, but as WOLA has highlighted in the past, it continues to be understaffed and under-resourced. While the Mexican government with the UNHCR’s support has taken steps to improve and strengthen its asylum system, the surge in requests in 2019 (which is expected to rise to 60,000 by the end of the year, up from 15,000 in 2017 ) has strained the system to the breaking point. Apart from the challenge of effectively processing claims, Mexico would face the unmanageable task of adequately settling tens of thousands of additional asylum seekers in its territory.

Mexico is also not safe for many asylum seekers. Migrants in transit and asylum seekers continue to be victims of extortion, robbery, kidnapping, sexual assault, and other crimes in the country. WOLA and Mexican organizations have also documented a near-total failure of Mexican authorities to investigate crimes against migrants and prosecute those responsible, with only 1 percent of reported cases resulting in a sentence.

This new ruling from the Trump administration is just one of many harmful and unlawful programs that seeks to drastically limit, if not close, the United States to asylum seekers and place the burden of protection on other countries. The “Remain in Mexico” program, launched in January, forces many asylum seekers to wait many months in Mexico while their immigration cases move through the U.S. system. Over 18,000 have been returned to Mexico so far, further taxing local services in Mexican border towns and exposing asylum seekers to the risk of kidnapping, robbery, and other crimes in some of Mexico’s most violent cities. 

“Although more individuals are deciding to seek asylum in Mexico, many migrants simply don’t feel safe in the country, including some who have already been victims of serious crimes like kidnapping and sexual assault,” said WOLA Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights  Maureen Meyer. “The United States shouldn’t be forcing people who are seeking protection in our country to request asylum in countries where they feel unsafe and which have a long record of violent crimes against migrants.”