WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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10 Sep 2019 | Commentary

6 Points About the U.S.-Mexico Migration Agreement and the Latest Border Apprehension Numbers

The United States and Mexico are set to review migration enforcement policies that are decimating due process, violating domestic and international law, and putting tens of thousands of asylum seekers in danger of rape, kidnapping, and assault as they are forced to await court dates in Mexico, a country living through record levels of violence

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard met with Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday, September 10, to discuss next steps concerning an agreement forged just over three months ago. That agreement is the result of the Trump administration strong-arming Mexico into intensifying migration enforcement and allowing for the expansion of the “Remain in Mexico” program, after threatening tariffs on Mexican exports to the United States. 

The agreement, born out of the Trump administration’s bullying, contains no commitments to tackling the root problems driving migration from Central America. Nor does it do anything to make either country’s asylum system more efficient, humanitarian, or rights-respecting. 

Instead, the focus is on draconian, hardline measures that have never achieved long-term success in ameliorating overall migration flows through the region, though they’ve done much to increase suffering and generate chaos.

With U.S. border authorities now reporting a drop in migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border compared to past months, some Trump administration officials are citing these numbers as a sign of “progress” on border security, while others maintain that still more is needed from the Mexican government. 

In that context, here are six points to better understand the story that the latest border figures don’t tell: the full impact of the humanitarian disaster wrought by a harmful, counter-productive U.S.-Mexico migration deal.

1.) The U.S.-Mexico migration deal has helped exacerbate the massive bottleneck of migrants and asylum seekers waiting in dangerous Mexican border towns.   

The migration deal has allowed the Trump administration to expand the “Remain in Mexico” program, which sends many non-Mexican asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for their U.S. immigration court hearing. The program represents a significant break with past U.S. asylum policy, to the detriment of those who have come to the United States in search of protection. 

“Remain in Mexico” does nothing to mitigate the overall backlog of asylum seekers waiting for U.S. court dates. Instead, it has shifted a significant portion of that backlog over to Mexican border towns, including some deemed by the U.S. State Department to be as dangerous as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. 

There, migrants and asylum seekers are highly vulnerable to being targeted by corrupt authorities or criminal groups. Research and advocacy group Human Rights First has counted over 110 violent crimes against asylum seekers returned to Mexico, a figure that is almost certainly underreported. 

Asylum seekers in the program also face enormous challenges to secure legal representation, a key element to the success of their asylum claim in the United States. A study by TRAC from Syracuse University found that as of the end of June 2019, less than two percent of asylum seekers under the program had access to an attorney.

Exacerbating this bottleneck is a practice known as “metering,” in which U.S. border authorities have slow-walked the processing of asylum seekers at the eight official ports of entry. When looking at the available research on the waitlists maintained at these ports of entry, alongside figures concerning those sent back under “Remain in Mexico,” we can estimate that there are nearly 52,000 asylum seekers waiting in Mexican border cities. That represents nearly a quarter of the total population of a U.S. border city like Brownsville, Texas.

2.) The U.S.-Mexico migration deal has incentivized Mexico’s migration and security forces to detain and deport people en masse, raising significant concerns over due process.

Mexico migration authorities have reported apprehending 128,485 people in the first seven months of this year, a 76 percent increase from the same time period last year. June 2019 alone saw the highest number of people apprehended in any month over a seven-year period.

Deportations from Mexico have also increased dramatically, with 84,029 people deported during the first seven months of 2019, according to the country’s migration authority. That’s a 38 percent increase of deportations compared to the same time period last year.

This massive increase in apprehensions and deportations will likely result in harm to migrants and asylum seekers, as there is a higher chance that those with legitimate claims to asylum will be deported without first getting the opportunity to petition for protection, or without even being informed by Mexican authorities of their right to do so.

As has been seen from past experiences (and as WOLA observed during a mid-August trip to Mexico’s southern border), this crackdown is also unlikely to make human smugglers drop out of the business. Instead, migrants will likely take more dangerous routes to avoid migration and security authorities, making them more vulnerable to crimes like assault, kidnapping, and rape. 

3) When assessing the impact of the U.S.-Mexico migration deal, Trump administration officials who want to argue that Mexico “still needs to do more” to stop migration can fish for the data to back up that misguided argument.

Sure, apprehensions are down at the U.S.-Mexico border compared to the past few months. But as the Washington Post has reported, there are some forces in the Trump administration who won’t be happy until migrant apprehensions go down to the levels of early 2017. This is an unrealistic goal: that time period, which saw the lowest monthly numbers of apprehensions at the border in decades, was an anomaly, a moment when many migrants and smugglers went into “wait and see” mode following Trump’s election. 

4.) Despite the short-term impact of the U.S.-Mexico migration agreement, past experience suggests that drops in apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border aren’t necessarily sustainable. 

Migration patterns tend to recover after disruptions. Such was the case in 2014-2015, after Mexico—under pressure from the Obama administration—administered a crackdown on migration via a program known as the “Southern Border Plan.” Central American families and children (and migrants from elsewhere) will continue to leave their home countries until they are able to feel safe there and effectively support themselves and their families. 

Guatemala continues to see widespread violence, and the government’s decision to shut the doors of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) will further weaken the rule of law and allow corruption to flourish, exacerbating poverty and insecurity. Honduras and El Salvador also continue to register some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

5.) As the United States works to close its doors, asylum requests are now soaring in Mexico, raising questions about capacity. 

As the U.S. government dumps its asylum responsibilities onto Mexico, asylum requests have soared. So far this year, Mexico has reported receiving 48,254 asylum requests.

As WOLA has previously noted, “Mexico’s asylum system continues to lack the capacity to process more than a tiny fraction of cases of individuals seeking protection, with a mere USD$1.2 million estimated total budget for 2019 and a significant backlog of cases.” 

Without vital support from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which provides technical assistance and helps pay for office needs ranging from staff salaries to printer toner, Mexico’s refugee agency would have collapsed by now.

6.) Even as apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border are down overall, the number of families and unaccompanied children crossing the border is going up. 

This trend makes clear that even as the United States and Mexico continue to focus on policies of deterrence, they have failed to adjust to a radical change in the population arriving at the border. 

In 2012, approximately 10 percent of those apprehended by Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border were children and families. Now, of the 811,016 single adults, unaccompanied children, and family units apprehended at the border so far this year, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) were either children or parents hoping to request asylum in the United States.

The fundamental problem at the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t the flow of child and family migrants itself; it is the Trump administration’s refusal to adapt its asylum and migration processes in order to humanely address this new population, an entirely different reality from the single, adult, mostly Mexican males seeking to evade capture, which characterized pre-2012 migrant flows.

Adam Isacson, Maureen Meyer, and Elyssa Pachico contributed to this article.