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Home / Press Release / With Asylum Effectively Blocked at Southern Border, Those Seeking Safety Face Escalating Violence, Punishing Conditions
May 13, 2020

With Asylum Effectively Blocked at Southern Border, Those Seeking Safety Face Escalating Violence, Punishing Conditions

WASHINGTON - As the Acting Secretary for the Department Homeland Security (DHS) travels to points along the U.S. border with Mexico this week, the Trump administration continues using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to summarily expel asylum-seekers and children to escalating violence in Mexico. Citing a now much-criticized Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order, the administration has effectively eliminated asylum and other humanitarian protections at the border. Human Rights First released a report today, “Pandemic as Pretext,” on the life-threatening dangers and appalling conditions faced by asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children blocked under this order from seeking protection in the United States.

“It’s clear from our investigation that the administration is using the pandemic to block and expel thousands of asylum seekers and unaccompanied children, turning them back to escalating violence in Mexico and other highly dangerous places where their lives and safety are at risk,” said Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher for refugee protection at Human Rights First and lead author of the report. “We found that CBP is turning away asylum-seekers who have been kidnapped, tortured and threatened in Mexico telling them that protection in the United States is not available due to the CDC order. The damage inflicted by the order has already been horrific. The last thing the CDC should do is renew this illegal and destructive order. The United States has the ability, if it chooses, to safeguard both public health and the lives of people seeking humanitarian protection. The latter does not need to be sacrificed to protect the former.”

While the Trump administration claims that blocking asylum is in the public health interest, leading public health experts found the policy has no public health rationale, and Human Rights First found that many Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and Border Patrol agents are failing to observe even the most basic health precautions at border posts, like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

In addition to its findings on the new expulsions from the United States, Human Rights First found horrific conditions in Mexico for asylum-seekers returned there under the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols” with more than 1,100 reported cases of kidnapping, rape and assault, protection interviews canceled supposedly because of the CDC order, and an utter lack of communication about court postponements that puts asylum-seekers in even greater danger in some of the most violent places in North America.

Key findings in the report include:

  • The Trump administration is wielding the CDC order to block and expel thousands of asylum seekers and unaccompanied children, turning them back to escalating violence in Mexico and other highly dangerous places where their lives and safety are at risk. They include a Honduran rape survivor and her two children, a mother with her five-day-old daughter and three-year-old son, a Venezuelan asylum seeker forced back without a fear screening to highly dangerous Nuevo Laredo, a lesbian couple from Brazil and their child denied a fear screening, and a Honduran asylum seeker whose finger was chopped off by his kidnappers when his family failed to pay a ransom but was still refused an MPP fear screening.
  • Asylum seekers from Cameroon, Cuba, Congo, Eritrea, and other countries, who have been forced to wait in Mexico to seek U.S. asylum on ad-hoc “lists” have been left stranded in increasingly dangerous and difficult conditions in Mexico in the wake of the CDC order.
  • Human Rights First estimates that the CDC order has been used to expel or block at least 4,000 families, adults, and children a month from requesting refugee protection in the United States. Over 1,000 unaccompanied children have already been expelled to Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and other countries under the order.
  • The number of reports of attacks on asylum seekers has grown. Human Rights First has tracked at least 1,114 public reports of murder, rape, kidnapping, torture, and assault against asylum seekers and migrants returned to Mexico under MPP. Of those, 265 were kidnappings or attempted kidnappings of children returned to Mexico under MPP.
  • Violence in Mexico and the dangers of kidnappings and harm facing asylum seekers forced back there are on the rise. Despite pandemic-related restrictions in Mexico, reported kidnappings rose in March 2020, and the number of murders in the first months of 2020 has also increased compared to early 2019, a year when the country suffered its highest homicide rate in more than two decades.
  • Despite claims by some DHS officials, including Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan, that asylum and MPP fear screening interviews are available on a “case-by-case” basis, the administration is rejecting requests without consideration.
  • DHS and EOIR’s recently announced rescheduling policy for the nearly 11,000 canceled MPP hearings will cause additional chaos, as the administration has no means to informs asylum seekers of the new policy, has not explained what those with new hearings scheduled on weekends should do and is continuing to require some asylum seekers to undertake dangerous trips merely to pick up updated notices.

Human Rights First called on the Trump administration to rescind the March 20 CDC order and not to renew it when it expires next week. The organization also urged an end to all other policies that violate U.S. asylum and immigration law and U.S. Refugee Protocol obligations.  Given the Trump administration’s refusal to end these illegal and harmful policies, the organization also details recommendations to Congress in its report. 

“If the CDC order truly were about public health measures to combat the coronavirus, CBP would take practical precautions like the rest of us, but many CBP officers have not even used masks as they process travelers at ports of entry,” Kizuka said. “What’s happening at the southern border isn’t about public health - it’s about using a global health crisis to scapegoat people seeking humanitarian protection and nullify the laws and treaties created to protect them.”