WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Sandra Sebastian)

23 Mar 2021 | Commentary

Key Issues on Access to Asylum in Mexico, Protections for Migrant Children, and U.S. Cooperation

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Asylum Access, and the Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI) have prepared a summary of the status of access to asylum in Mexico, protections for migrant children, and U.S. cooperation. Here are our key findings:

Mexico as a destination country for asylum seekers

  • Asylum requests have increased dramatically in Mexico in recent years. Requests more than doubled between 2015 to 2016 (3,424 to 8,796) and increased by more than 700 percent between 2016 and 2019. More than 125,000 people have requested protection in Mexico since President Lopez Obrador took office in December 2018, including over 13,500 requests in January and February 2021. 
  • Unlike the United States, Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR continued to accept asylum requests during the pandemic, receiving a total of 41,329 requests for 2020. Although COMAR closed its offices for a period during the pandemic, it processed 14,638 cases during the year, providing protection in 79 percent of the cases. The top nationalities receiving protection in Mexico are from Honduras, Venezuela, Cuba, El Salvador and Guatemala although Mexico has also seen an uptick in asylum request from Haitians and other extra-continental migrants. 
  • Mexico’s legal definition of who can qualify for protection is broader than the United States, including “persons who have fled their country because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order,” as well as people persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, gender, political opinions or belonging to a particularly social group.

Obstacles for accessing protection in Mexico

  • While Mexico has improved its reception and processing capacity, asylum seekers continue to face significant obstacles to access protection. This includes a 30 day limit from first entry into the country to request asylum; the requirement to stay in the state where the asylum request was made while it is being processed (with some exceptions for grave security concerns); inadequate access to a humanitarian visa which would enable work authorization and facilitate access to health and education; and long delays in resolving claims. 
  • Currently, asylum agents from COMAR do not have a presence at the ports of entry. Asylum seekers presenting a claim at the border will generally be detained for at least a few days by Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM). To avoid detention, many asylum seekers try to travel undetected to towns close to the border to present themselves at a COMAR office or shelter. On this journey they are often victims of crimes including kidnapping, sexual assault, and robbery. 
  • For asylum seekers who are held in detention, lack of services, poor food and healthcare, and overcrowding has resulted in numerous asylum seekers dropping their claims in order to be released. A program to provide alternatives to detention, started in 2016, is currently being severely curtailed by the INM. 
  • Many migrants who are detained by the INM are not adequately informed of their right to seek protection in Mexico. A monitoring mission carried out by the INM’s citizen council of migrant detention centers in 2016 found that the primary focus of INM agents is on the detection, detention, and deportation of migrants. The majority of the detainees interviewed at the centers reported never having received information about their right to apply for asylum or that the information was not clear.

Is Mexico safe for asylum seekers?

  • Some parts of Mexico, in particular the several northern border cities where many asylum seekers have been returned or expelled to from the US, are among the most dangerous areas in the world and are not considered safe for asylum seekers. This is particularly the case in the state of Tamaulipas. Mexico’s southern border states’ proximity to Central America means that agents of persecution may be present there, and asylum seekers may face similar dangers from which they fled from their countries of origin. 
  • While asylum seekers may be at risk in certain areas, other asylum seekers have been able to successfully integrate. In particular, areas with relatively lower crime rates and more economic opportunities, including several states in central Mexico, can host significant numbers of refugees. 
  • Support for Mexican institutions, shelters, civil society organizations, and refugee-led organizations that promote sustainable and dignified integration would help expand the spaces in which asylum seekers can live in safety.

Strengthening Mexico’s capacity to receive asylum seekers 

  • In spite of important measures undertaken during Lopez Obrador’s administration, COMAR’s resources have not increased sufficiently to meet demand, leading to a backload of cases. While the agency’s budget for 2021 is likely to be $4.85 million, more than double its $2.35 million budget for 2020, more investment is needed to address staffing limitations and expand its presence beyond the 8 cities where it currently has offices.
  • UNHCR has dramatically expanded its presence in Mexico in recent years and provided important technical and infrastructure support to COMAR. Apart from assisting COMAR, the UNHCR has supported the construction of shelters for asylum seekers and refugees, it provides assistance to civil society organizations offering legal and other services to asylum seekers and cash support for asylum seekers waiting for their claims to be processed, amongst other activities. 

Legal reforms that prohibit detention for migrant children and their families in Mexico

  • In January 2021, legal reforms went into effect prohibiting immigration detention for unaccompanied and accompanied migrant children in Mexico. Immigration cases will be resolved according to the best interest of the child to be determined by Child Protection Officers, instead of the INM. Unaccompanied children and children with families should be referred to shelters to await interviews and a resolution that could instruct INM to repatriate the migrants, to refer them to COMAR to apply for refugee status, or to provide immigration documents for residence in Mexico. In some cases, Child Protection Officers will determine that it is in the child’s best interest to be reunified with family members in another country.
  • The new procedures will help guarantee protection for migrant children, increase access to the asylum system and decrease the use of smugglers and extortion by INM and other authorities in Mexico. 

U.S. cooperation on access to protection in Mexico

  • The United States continues to be the largest donor for UNHCR in Mexico, providing an estimated $42 million in assistance in 2020. In the past, additional support to COMAR and international organizations operating in Mexico was provided through the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Apart from appropriating additional financial support, and upholding its own international commitments for refugees and asylum seekers, the U.S. government should consider developing procedures with the Mexican government to provide access to protection in the U.S. for individuals who would face persecution in Mexico and unaccompanied children from Central America when the best interest determination is that they should be united with the U.S.-based family members. 
  • In order to strengthen implementation of the new reforms that prohibit the detention of migrant children, the U.S. government should consider supporting the child protection system in Mexico and work with the Mexican government to create a regional protection system for migrant children. 

U.S. assistance to Mexico’s immigration enforcement efforts has primarily focused on supporting the construction of communications towers in southern Mexico as well as the installation of biometric equipment in all of Mexico’s 52 long- and short- term migrant detention centers. No new areas of assistance have been announced since Lopez Obrador took office in December 2018. While in January 2021 the Mexican government reported it had deployed over 7,300 members of the National Guard to assist in immigration enforcement on the southern and northern borders, the United States is currently not providing any training, equipment, or support to this force and it should refrain from doing so given the militarized nature of the National Guard and documented cases of abuse against migrants and asylum seekers.