Biden Administration Should Support Rights-respecting Response to Migration, Avoid Harmful Border Externalization
Scenes of military raids and violent detentions of asylum seekers and migrants last week underscore the need for Mexican authorities to halt abuses and to resolve the problem underlying these events: the untenable policy of keeping migrants and asylum seekers contained within an area of southern Mexico that is ill-equipped to meet their basic needs. At a time of rising hemisphere-wide migration, this situation will worsen if not addressed. The Biden administration can help by supporting a sustainable, rights-respecting response to regional migration, as it has laid out in its Collaborative Migration Management Strategy, rather than encouraging Mexico to block or contain migrants at its southern border.
Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, received a record-breaking 77,559 protection requests from January to August 2021. The majority (over 55,000) were filed in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state. Mexican asylum policy requires claimants to remain in the state where they requested protection while their claims are processed. Amid a high number of pending cases, asylum seekers now face many months stranded at Mexico’s southern border. Many do so in precarious conditions because of discrimination and exploitation, as well as a lack of access to work and housing.
Seeking a way out of this ongoing plight, in recent days hundreds of people attempted to relocate and find work in other parts of Mexico by walking north from Tapachula. The Mexican government’s response last week was for military troops (which make up most of the new National Guard) and National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) agents to detain successive groups of people walking north.
These detentions were often violent. Videos recorded by journalists—some of whom were also victims of violence and attempts to obstruct their work—show migration agents knocking down families with small children and kicking a detained man in the head as he is restrained by other agents. Such brutal scenes confirm that a militarized, containment-centric approach to migration is a recipe for abuse. They also call attention to what Mexican civil society organizations signal is a pattern of abuses and lack of accountability in the INM. In response to the outrage provoked by the videos, the INM announced that it had suspended two agents.
Beyond the duty to cease violence against migrants and those defending their human rights, as called for by civil society and multiple UN agencies, these events point to the need for the Mexican government to lift restrictions on migrant transit within Mexico. In addition to the human rights impacts of keeping migrants in an area that is ill-equipped to support them, it is simply unrealistic to think that families and individuals unable to meet their basic needs can be physically beaten back or trapped along Mexico’s southern border indefinitely. Rather, if migrants are not allowed to relocate within Mexico by taking roads and other visible routes, they will be forced to seek clandestine paths, generating the opposite of orderly and safe migration. And since asylum seekers will continue to arrive in Mexico in the coming weeks and months, the untenable scenario at the southern border will worsen, if not properly addressed now.
Specific groups face situations of vulnerability that require appropriate responses. A large portion of the migrants in Tapachula, for instance, are Haitians and people of Haitian descent (Haitians account for 18,883 protection claims so far in 2021, second only to Hondurans). In addition to lacking work opportunities and adequate shelter—and facing multiple expressions of racism—Haitians face an especially difficult uphill battle to receive asylum. The head of COMAR has stated that the majority of Haitians are unlikely to qualify for protection under Mexican law, even as conditions in Haiti make it unthinkable to deport them. This underscores the need to explore other options for them, such as humanitarian visas and work permits.
Some Mexican agencies’ reactions to the Haitian population are concerning: the INM proposed installing a camp for Haitian asylum seekers in Chiapas, which doubles down on the containment paradigm and raises questions for singling out Haitians as the nationality to be located in a camp. (The UN Refugee Agency was quick to distance itself from any such proposal, as were church representatives who work with migrants.) The situation of Haitians makes clear the need for more comprehensive solutions to respond to a mixed flow of migrants and asylum seekers, and the need to combat the aggravated discrimination experienced by Black migrants.
For its part, the Biden administration should cease pressuring Mexico to act as an externalized U.S. border that blocks, contains, or deports as many migrants as possible, a bilateral focus that has led to a series of rights-violating practices. Current policies are producing outcomes as dangerous as they are absurd: both migrants and civil society organizations report that even people with documented status in southern Mexico, including refugee status, have been deported to Guatemala in recent days. Mexico’s Defense Minister stated at the end of August that the military’s principal objective in the southern border zone is to “stop all migration.” Rather than reinforcing this dysfunctional model, it is essential that the United States continue to engage Mexico as a partner in expanding access to international protection, one of the U.S. administration’s own stated objectives.
Adequately addressing modern migration patterns requires ensuring access to asylum systems and building capacity to process claims. It also requires recognizing that many people who may not fall within the traditional definition of an asylee nonetheless find themselves forced to migrate. Offering asylum as the only path to a migration status, then, is both inefficient and insufficient as a migration management strategy—especially when the asylum system in question is under-resourced and overwhelmed, as is currently the case in Mexico.
As civil society and COMAR advocate, alternative paths to a regularized status are needed in Mexico, as well as permission for migrants to relocate away from Mexico’s southern border while their cases are being processed. Regional cooperation is also needed for asylum seekers who may face persecution in Mexico and for unaccompanied children whose best interest may be to be reunited with U.S.-based family members. Failing to address these areas—persisting with violent crackdowns like we saw last week in Chiapas—risks fueling a pressure cooker of unmet humanitarian needs in southern Mexico, with dire effects for migrant families and individuals, as well as for migration management in the region.