WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Beyond the Wall

Borders should not be barriers to human rights.

(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

The Trump administration’s cruel and illegal policies of deterrence created a humanitarian disaster at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The damage is deep, and will take time to undo. 

There are commonsense policies that the U.S. government can now pursue, in order to handle migration at its southern border in an orderly, rights-respecting way. 

Sign up for weekly updates about what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Subscribe for weekly border updates

Read past border updates here.

There are longstanding problems at the U.S.-Mexico border that preceded the Trump administration.

Trump’s cruel and illegal policies of deterrence made the situation much worse.

However, there’s a rights-respecting way forward, to better protect asylum and enable orderly and safe migration. 

Click on our areas of thematic work below, for context on the longstanding problems at the U.S.-Mexico border and recommendations for a rights-respecting way forward.

Border governance policy

The longstanding problem is…

  • The U.S. government has built a security apparatus (walls, border agencies that rarely enforce accountability for abuse, frequent military deployments) at the U.S.-Mexico border. This apparatus is designed mainly to keep out single men migrating from Mexico for economic reasons.
  • Since 2013, the profile of migrants has changed dramatically, with children and families making up over a third—at times, over half—of the population. Today’s migrants at the border often need protection and placement in the United States’ creaky asylum adjudication system.
  • In a vacuum of leadership, our border agencies have not adjusted to the new reality: they remain trained and deployed to detain and deport adult migrants whom they presume to be dangerous, while preserving a defiantly low-accountability culture.

What the Trump administration did to make it worse is…

  • Because of the Trump administration’s focus on illegal policies of deterrence and cruelty, the United States lost four years when it should have been making desperately needed reforms to its outmoded border security structures and systems.
  • A torrent of abusive presidential rhetoric and political appointees’ policies encouraged and protected the most abusive, cruel, and openly racist elements in Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This severely damaged these agencies’ organizational culture—which had hardly rewarded compassion or transparency in the first place

What needs to happen moving forward is…

  • Re-adapt processing capacity at the border, in the face of the reality that many of those crossing the border are now children and families, many in search of protection.
  • This should include taking the implementation of migration processing out of the hands of security agencies that are not suited to be processing children and families.
  • Reform the internal culture of agencies like Customs and Border Protection (CBP), including the Border Patrol.

Asylum and detention

The longstanding problem is…

  • We are in the midst of a regional humanitarian crisis, as large numbers of people continue to flee Central America and elsewhere seeking protection from violence and persecution. For example: in 2015, the Department of Homeland Security reported that in the prior three years, more individuals from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras had requested asylum in the United States than in the previous 15 years combined.
  • Because of this increase, at the beginning of the Biden administration, U.S. immigration courts faced a historic number of pending immigration cases, topping over 1.2 million; on average asylum cases take almost three years to be resolved.
  • Asylum seekers with access to legal representation are twice as likely to win their cases, yet the number of asylum seekers without council has skyrocketed since 2017.
  • While unaccompanied children are not held in detention and prolonged family detention has been limited, many single asylum seekers are held in detention centers until their case is resolved or they are released on parole.

What the Trump administration did to make it worse is…

  • Through hundreds of regulations, rules and policies, the Trump administration sought to end access to asylum in the United States.
  • The Trump administration also implemented multiple policies to mandate the detention of asylum seekers without access to parole, forcing victims of traumatic abuse to remain in detention indefinitely until their cases have been resolved, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What needs to happen moving forward is…

  • Set up facilities near ports of entry to better process asylum seekers in a humane way.
  • Expand alternatives to detention and non-profit case management programs. Detention of asylum seekers should be limited and based on assessment of the security risk an individual poses.
  • Ensure asylum seekers and people who migrate receive due process in immigration court. This should include expanding access to legal counsel and and designating more resources to the overburdened immigration court system.

Migrant rights and safety in Mexico

The longstanding problem is…

  • Migrants and asylum seekers crossing Mexico face a high risk of being kidnapped, extorted, raped, or even killed by criminal networks, which frequently include and/or operate with the tolerance of state agents.
  • The vast majority of these crimes remain in impunity.
  • Meanwhile, migrants in government custody face prolonged detention and serious obstacles in accessing asylum.

What the Trump administration did to make it worse is…

  • While not the first U.S. administration to ask Mexico to crack down on migration, Trump threatened tariffs unless Mexico stopped migrants from reaching the United States. Consequently, Mexico scaled up its already militarized, deterrence-based strategy that fails to screen migrants adequately for protection needs.
  • This dehumanizing approach—in which governments treat migrants as a flow to be blocked, rather than as human beings in need of protection—heightens migrants’ vulnerability to refoulement and human rights abuses at the hands of security forces and migration enforcement authorities.
  • In turn, knowing that detention and deportation likely await them if they come into contact with government institutions—even if they are fleeing violence—migrants are forced to take clandestine routes into and through Mexico, pushing them into the hands of organized crime and corrupt officials and exposing them to danger.

What needs to happen moving forward is…

  • The U.S. government must clearly communicate that it does not wish for Mexico to “block” migration, but rather to be a partner in responding to migration in a rights-respecting way, putting protection at the center of the agenda.
  • The United States should work with the Mexican government to guarantee the right to seek asylum, which means building the capacity of Mexico’s refugee agency (COMAR) and implementing alternatives to detention for asylum seekers.
  • Protecting migrants also means investigating and dismantling the criminal groups that attack them, including state agents’ involvement in such groups.

Root causes of migration in Central America

The longstanding problem is…

  • Systemic corruption hobbles the ability of governments in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to establish democracies that are truly representative and inclusive, and that work to serve the interests of citizens, rather than a small circle of elites (that are, in some cases, tied to drug trafficking and organized crime).
  • There is little understanding of whether U.S. assistance to the region—intended to address migration’s push factors—is strategically targeted, wisely invested, and properly implemented, and whether the governments of Central America are doing their part to meet key progress indicators for accountability and reform.

What the Trump administration did to make it worse is…

  • The Trump administration overlooked efforts by Northern Triangle governments to gut successful anti-corruption efforts, in exchange for their collaboration on cruel and illegal migration policies like the “safe third country” deals.

What needs to happen moving forward is…

    • Ensure that U.S. aid and diplomacy are centered around supporting courageous anti-corruption reformers and civil society organizations in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
    • The U.S. government should support building robust, independent justice systems across the region, capable of investigating and dismantling corrupt networks.
    • The United States and other international partners should condition bilateral assistance and loans on clear actions on the part of Central America governments to tackle corruption and strengthen rule of law. WOLA is tracking efforts to strengthen the rule of law and security in the region through the Central America Monitor.

Explore the Central America Monitor


Stand with us in this essential fight to protect human rights—on both sides of the border.

How You Can Help

When you support WOLA’s Beyond the Wall campaign, we will be able to:

1.) Provide rigorously researched materials to changemakers (including litigation efforts, Members of Congress, Biden administration officials, and top-tier journalists) at critical moments, in order to cut through the noise of polarized debates.

2.) Connect partners in Central America, Mexico, and at the border with U.S. policymakers who wouldn’t otherwise hear their views.

3.) Collect data that reveals how Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras can better transform into stable, safe, and prosperous countries with accountable governments, where people aren’t forced to flee for a shot at a dignified life.

Your donation will help ensure that major decisionmakers receive the information they need to protect human rights at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A Rights-Respecting Approach to Migration

Circle icon of the earth with a white heart in blue pin that sits on top of the earth

Implement effective border governance policy that respects human rights

This requires reforming the institutional culture of U.S. border security agencies like Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol, and taking migration processing out of the hands of security agencies and the military.

Read More

Circle icon of a pair of brown hands open towards a big green human figure and small blue human figure holding hands

Fix the badly broken asylum system in the United States

This requires getting serious about effective alternatives to detention and ensuring people who migrate receive due process in immigration court.

Read More

A circle icon with three blue human figures with red hearts, arms spread wide

Work with Mexico to ensure the rights and safety of people who migrate and asylum seekers

Ensuring the safety of people who migrate and asylum seekers as they transit through—or choose to stay—in Mexico means: working with the Mexican government to strengthen its asylum system, ending support for militarized border enforcement strategies, and partnering with Mexico to dismantle mechanisms of violence against people who migrate.

Read More

Circle icon of the bottom of shoes, one heel is green and the other foot is half blue

Partner with Central American countries to address root causes of migration

This requires ensuring that U.S. assistance is strategically targeted, wisely invested, and properly implemented, and that the governments of Central America are doing their part to meet key progress indicators for accountability and reform.

Read More

WOLA’s Impact

WOLA protects the human rights of asylum seekers and people who migrate through our unique access and longstanding relationships with Members of Congress and other influential policymakers; our close partnerships with colleagues in Mexico, Central America, and at the U.S.-Mexico border; and our ability to reframe debates, provide deep expertise, and timely analysis to changemakers at the right time.

Beyond the Wall: Make an Impact