WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

7 May 2019 | Commentary

Q&A: Analyzing Mexico’s Current Migration and Asylum Policies

Compared to past presidencies, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government has adopted a more welcoming rhetoric towards migrants in Mexico. His administration has affirmed that it will respect the rights of migrants traveling in its territory, while promoting a joint response to migration flows focused on shared responsibilities and actions by governments in Central America, Mexico, and the United States.

But while López Obrador’s government has tried to promote a more humane response to numerous migrant caravans and an increasing number of extra-continental migrants that have traveled through the country since December 2018, recent events suggest his government may fall back on the aggressive detention and deportation policies that characterized his predecessor, President Enrique Peña Nieto, oftentimes at the expense of vulnerable asylum seekers.

And as past experience has shown, focusing on the mass detention and deportation of migrants won’t stop the flow of people: it only makes the journey migrants undergo more dangerous and increases the risk of deporting asylum seekers back to the violence they were fleeing from, sometimes to their deaths.

Migration is expected to be a major point of discussion when Mexico Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard travels to Washington, D.C. for meetings with U.S. officials on May 7. These discussions will also likely cover the future of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation, as well as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), as the Mexican Congress recently passed a labor law that U.S. congressional Democrats had placed as a condition before moving forward with any votes on the new trade pact.

In light of these upcoming discussions between U.S. and Mexican officials, we provide below important context for understanding Mexico’s current immigration enforcement policies, ongoing efforts by Mexico to expand protections and uphold the human rights of migrants, and the current situation for asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

1. What is Mexico doing to address the flow of migrants traveling in the country?

While President Trump has frequently criticized Mexico, claiming the country is doing nothing to stop migrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border and threatening to shut down the border if the Mexican government does not act, Mexico’s apprehension numbers suggest the López Obrador administration has not let up on immigration enforcement. As of April 22, Mexico’s National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) reported that it had apprehended 41,940 migrants since the start of the year. This represents a mere 5 percent decrease from the 44,062 apprehensions carried out during the first four months of 2018.

Last month, enforcement actions against a faction of the most recent migrant caravan traveling in Chiapas resulted in the detention of 371 individuals. The raid produced shocking images of INM agents ripping children from their parents’ arms and chasing after scared migrant families in order to detain them. These developments paralleled some of the immigration enforcement abuse denounced when Peña Nieto launched Mexico’s Southern Border Program in the summer of 2014.  

Research has shown that increased enforcement against migrants in Mexico is unlikely to deter migration.

Instead, it only drives migrants to hire professional smugglers and take more dangerous routes northwards. The current crackdown has reportedly prompted more migrants to once again ride on top of freight trains headed north, a dangerous journey which usually subjects migrants in transit to crimes like extortion or assault. Train riders on “the Beast” also face a high risk of injury, should they fall off the train and lose a limb, and even death.

As WOLA and numerous migrant shelters and organizations in Mexico have extensively documented, as migrants seek to travel undetected in Mexico, they are more likely to become victims of human rights violations and other crimes, including kidnapping, robbery, and sexual assault.

Rather than doubling down on the mass detention and deportation of migrants, Mexico should move forward with its plans to provide more opportunities for migrants to live and work in Mexico described below. It should also continue to push forward plans to modernize the INM, including by promoting alternatives to detention, combating corruption within the Institute, and strengthening oversight and accountability mechanisms, such as establishing an internal affairs unit to investigate crimes and abuses committed by migration agents.

2. How has Mexico tried to address some of the root causes driving migration from Central America?

On his first day in office, López Obrador and the governments of three Central American countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) signed a decree to promote economic development in the region as a means to to tackle some of the root problems driving migrants to leave, such as poverty, lack of opportunity, and other push factors.

Foreign Minister Ebrard has affirmed that Mexico will pledge USD$30 billion to the regional development plan over the next five years. However, it is still unclear whether López Obrador’s government will secure these funds. Nor is it clear if the full $30 billion would go toward job creation projects in southern Mexico (such as a proposed train linking popular archaeological sites), or if some of the funds would go to Central America. On April 29, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry announced its support for the new Initiative for Inclusive Investment in Mexico (3IM), a development initiative spearheaded by investment initiatives the Refugee Investment Network and 17 Asset Management. 3IM aims to foster the inclusion of displaced people—including refugees—in economic development projects in regions in southern and northern Mexico with high numbers of displaced people.

López Obrador has tried to pull the Trump administration into efforts to address the conditions forcing people to migrate from the region. In their phone conversation on December 12, 2018, López Obrador asked President Trump to support job creation projects in Central America. Six days later, both countries issued a declaration committing to economic development and cooperation in southern Mexico and Central America (although at the time it did not appear that the United States was pledging any new funds to the region).

The Mexican government reported that in a March 20, 2019 meeting between López Obrador and President Trump’s advisor Jared Kushner, one of the key issues addressed was the possibility of signing a memorandum of understanding to promote cooperation for investment aimed at job creation and economic growth in Mexico and Central America. But Trump’s subsequent cancellation of at least USD$450 million in assistance to Central America, alongside his threats to close the border if Mexico does not “do enough” to stop migrants from reaching the U.S. border, casts doubts on the future of these discussions.  

3. How has Mexico tried to support and expand protections for migrants and asylum seekers?

One of the biggest shifts in the Mexican government’s response to Central American migration and the caravans was the January 2019 decision to provide humanitarian visas. These visas allow migrants who qualify to live and work in Mexico for a set period (usually a year). Mexico ended up processing requests for over 13,000 humanitarian visas in a three-week period.  

Given that the program was “too successful”, the Mexican government stopped issuing humanitarian visas en masse and called on Central Americans to request these visas at Mexican consulates in their country of origin (although migrants who are victims of serious crimes in Mexico can continue to request these visas in the country in order to pursue criminal complaints against those responsible).

After shutting down the initiative, the government subsequently announced that it would continue to issue these visas on a limited basis, particularly for vulnerable individuals.  

The majority of the migrants from Central America, Cuba, and numerous Asian, African, and other countries who are currently waiting in different cities in the southern state of Chiapas, are individuals waiting for humanitarian visas or an “exit visa” (oficio de salida del país). Exit visas are provided to individuals in Mexico irregularly who face obstacles to being returned to their home country, primarily due to lack of consular or Embassy recognition of their nationality. Staff shortages, office closures due to violent confrontations with some migrants, and increased demand have resulted in thousands of migrants waiting weeks (sometimes longer) for some resolution to their cases.

Mexico has presented other visa-related initiatives that would provide limited benefits to migrants. In a press conference on April 23, 2019, Mexico’s Minister of the Interior, Olga Sanchez, announced that Mexico would expand its regional travel visas to citizens from El Salvador and Honduras. A benefit already enjoyed by Guatemalans and Belizeans, this document allows individuals to remain in Mexico’s southern border states for a seven-day period to travel; however, they cannot work and would be detained by Mexican authorities if they used this document to travel farther north.

Sanchez also announced that the administration planned to submit a proposal to the Mexican Congress to expand regional work visas for more Central Americans. (Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans already work in Chiapas in southern Mexico as day or temporary laborers, primarily in the agricultural sector or as domestic workers). While there are few additional details about future work visas, many Mexican businesses appear to back López Obrador’s call to expand work visa programs throughout the country in order to respond to various labor shortages.

Mexico is also working to expand and strengthen its asylum system. Asylum requests in Mexico almost doubled from 2017 to 2018, and the UNHCR’s conservative projections predict at least 47,000 asylum claimants in Mexico for 2019. By the end of April 2019, Mexico’s Commission to Support Refugees (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, COMAR) had already received 18,365 requests for asylum.

However, 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.

The head of COMAR, Andres Ramírez, affirmed in a recent interview that his office needs to double its staff, improve training, and have six times its current resources in order to improve its capacity to receive and process requests. While UNHCR is providing important support to Mexico to increase and improve its capacity, Ramírez also stated that the Ministry of the Interior should soon be increasing COMAR’s budget by over USD$5 million.

4. How is the roll-out of the Trump administration’s “Migrant Protection Protocols” affecting asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border? 

Under what the Trump administration has termed “Migrant Protection Protocols,” individuals entering the United States at the official ports of entry without proper documentation, or who are apprehended between the ports of entry and are seeking asylum in the United States, may be returned to Mexico to wait out their immigration proceedings.

Launched on January 25, 2019 as a pilot program at the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana, the Migration Protection Protocols—also commonly termed the “Remain in Mexico” program—was initially applied to some individuals requesting asylum at this port. This includes a number of the thousands of asylum seekers from Central America and other countries who have been waiting months in Tijuana for an appointment with U.S. officials. Since the launch of the program, roughly 1,600 asylum seekers, including families with young children and pregnant women, have been returned to Mexico to await their immigration hearings. Most have been returned to Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, the two cities with the highest homicide rates in Mexico for 2018.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has affirmed that individuals able to prove to U.S. officials that they have fear of persecution or torture if they remain in Mexico would not be returned. If an asylum seeker expresses fear of going back to Mexico, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are supposed to refer them to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officer for additional screening.  

However, asylum officers charged with conducting these interviews have raised concerns with their unions about poor training and guidelines for these screenings. Some have claimed they have been told not to ask asylum seekers if they are afraid of being return to Mexico, expressing concern that they are being used by administration officials to “give their blessings” on interviews that they consider to be a sham. As reported by Vox, asylum officers have also expressed concerns that their decisions not to return asylum seekers back to Mexico are being blocked or overturned by USCIS authorities.

Other media reports have suggested that U.S. border security authorities are also failing to follow required protocols. Some migrants have said they had not been able to express fear to the CBP agent during the interview and others had not been referred to USCIS. Decisions on which asylum seekers are allowed to wait out the process in the United States, versus those told to return to Mexico, have been criticized by immigration advocates as arbitrary.  Many of the asylum seekers that have been sent back to Mexico lack legal representation for their cases in the United States and face multiple difficulties in supporting themselves and their families in Mexican border towns.  

On March 22, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg held the first hearing in a lawsuit challenging the “Remain in Mexico” program, based on allegations that it violates the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, as well as the United States’ responsibility under international law to not return people to dangerous conditions. Judge Seeborg later blocked the program, but his decision was put on hold by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which continues to hear arguments in the case.

5. What’s the situation like for asylum-seekers on the Mexican side of the border?

Apart from the growing number of asylum seekers who could be sent back to Mexico, Mexican border towns are already under extreme strain, given the high number of migrants from throughout the world who are waiting for an appointment with U.S. officials to request asylum. Part of this strain is the result of the “metering system” implemented by U.S. border officials, which has drastically limited the number of individuals accepted each day at the U.S. ports of entry.

The waitlists of asylum seekers are managed informally, with varying involvement of Mexican government personnel in different border towns. CBP takes no responsibility for the lists, but it usually informs Mexican counterparts about how many asylum seekers they can accept every day. There have been accusations of Mexican officials demanding bribes from asylum seekers in exchange for a more favorable placement on the list.

According to a recent research report by the Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California-San Diego, as of February 2019, approximately 2,300 asylum seekers were waiting for an appointment with U.S. officials in Tijuana, with a wait time of around six weeks. In Nogales, there were somewhere between 80 and 100 people waiting, with a wait time of seven to ten days. A recent report by Human Rights First found that hundreds of asylum seekers in Mexican towns bordering Texas are waiting weeks and sometimes months for an appointment with U.S. officials.

Throughout Mexican border towns, local shelters and state and municipal governments are struggling to find sufficient housing and other services to support these asylum seekers as well as resources to tend to the over 16,000 Mexican migrants who are being deported from the United States every month.

To date, the Mexican federal government has not implemented any program to support individuals waiting to seek asylum in the United States, or those who have returned as a result of the Migrant Protection Protocols.

Mexican border towns also continue to present serious security risks for migrants in transit. Reports by U.S. and Mexican civil society organizations and migrant shelters in Mexico show that migrants are often victims of abuse throughout the country, as demonstrated by documented cases of kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, extortion, and murder. In a February 2019 letter to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen about the Migration Protection Protocols, 60 non-governmental organizations in Mexico, Central America, and the United States expressed deep concerns about the legality of the program and the security risks for migrants and others in Mexico. The letter discusses the extensive documentation of crimes and abuses against migrants throughout Mexico and calls attention to “systemic corruption and abuses within Mexican law and migration enforcement agencies who at times work in collusion with criminal groups.”

6. What should both countries be doing together on migration?

Both the U.S. and Mexican governments should work to fulfill their international obligations for asylum seekers and refugees. Recent polls show that U.S. public opinion supports expanding or maintaining current U.S. asylum policies rather than making the asylum process more difficult.

Rather than shirking away from the United States’ commitments under national and international law and passing on to Mexico the obligation to support and house U.S.-bound asylum seekers, the U.S. government should expand access to asylum and increase support for migration and refugee assistance to the region in order to help countries better adjudicate claims, establish mechanisms to identify and protect the most vulnerable refugees, and expand refugee resettlement to countries outside of the United States.

For its part, Mexico must direct additional human and financial resources to strengthen its capacity to provide effective access to asylum. If the Mexican government is committed to supporting refugees and other vulnerable individuals, it should ensure the requested additional funding and staffing to COMAR so that it can open additional offices and increase its capacity to promptly process claims while guaranteeing due process.

In terms of Mexico’s immigration enforcement agency the INM, reports have documented that immigration agents are not effectively screening apprehended migrants for protection concerns before deportations take place. The INM Commissioner should ensure that agents are adequately trained on best practices to screen detained individuals for protection concerns and that the information provided to detainees clearly lays out the different ways an individual might qualify for protection in Mexico. It should also guarantee that civil society organizations can access detention centers so that they can provide legal assistance to asylum seekers.

Apart from these national measures, both governments should discuss ways to deepen collaboration on regional migration flows, including by:

Increasing engagement and cooperation with reformers in Central America: As WOLA has asserted, threatening to shut down the border, expediting deportations, and cutting of aid to Central America will only make the situation worse, not better. Rather than continuing on his quest to wall off the United States from its neighbors, Trump should follow the lead of his Mexican counterpart by promoting efforts to create a more stable and prosperous Central America.

While this cooperation should include programs to promote economic development and job creation, like those put forward by López Obrador, engagement should also address the violence and poor governance that is forcing tens of thousands of Central Americans to flee their homes. Cooperation to strengthen the rule of law and support reformers and anti-corruption efforts within and outside of the governments in Central America should be prioritized.

Developing binational programs and initiatives to support asylum seekers and refugees: Multiple reports have shown that Mexico is not considered a safe country for many asylum seekers. At the same time, many Central American asylum seekers consider the United States the most appropriate country for them and their needs, primarily due to family ties and reunification.

Rather than seeking to establish a safe third country agreement that would compromise the safety and wellbeing of many asylum seekers, and apart from fulfilling their international obligations to asylum seekers, both governments should consider establishing procedures that would allow vulnerable groups to safely travel to the United States to request asylum or another form of international protection.

Such vulnerable groups could include, but are not limited to, unaccompanied children (primarily those with parents or other family members in the United States), members of the LGBTI community, or people being persecuted by individuals whose reach may extend into Mexico.

Expanding regional cooperation regarding transnational crimes against migrants: Recognizing the transnational nature of criminal organizations and the victims of these crimes, prosecutors from Mexico, Central America, and the United States should hold regular meetings to address from a regional perspective the crimes and human rights violations committed against migrants. They should also agree on efficient ways of collaborating and reducing impunity in these cases.

This should include, but is not limited to, transnational kidnapping cases involving Central American victims who are kidnapped in Mexico, in which U.S.-based family members are often extorted to pay ransom money to secure their release. The Mexican government should also improve the implementation of the mechanism that allows victims and/or their families to report crimes against migrants that occurred in Mexico (including disappearances and extortion cases) at Mexican embassies and consulates abroad.