Marking One Year of the Horrific “Remain in Mexico” Policy – Over 800 Violent Attacks on Asylum-Seekers
WASHINGTON – Next week marks one year since the Trump administration began forcibly returning asylum-seekers to wait for their court dates in Mexico, where they have suffered kidnappings, torture, and sexual assaults, as well as barriers to legal representation and due process. Unsurprisingly, Trump administration and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials tout this horrific policy, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP, as a “success,” at the same time as Congress has begun investigating the legality of the policy.
This week, Human Rights First and Veterans for American Ideals (VFAI), a project of Human Rights First, sent a small delegation of U.S. veterans to the Southern border – to Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico in the state of Tamaulipas - to learn about the human rights challenges facing migrants and asylum-seekers turned back to Mexico and raise awareness about these human rights issues.
“My time in uniform was in the service of our country and our values, but it’s clear that American values and our commitment to human rights have been abandoned at the U.S. border with Mexico,” said Pam Campos-Palma, an Air Force veteran and advisor to Human Rights First through her work with Veterans for American Ideals.
“Being on the ground in Matamoros, it was haunting to see the complacency and the normalization of violence and rampant insecurity particularly due to zero accountability or ownership by any security or government agencies. I saw with my own eyes the opportunity for assault, kidnapping, and public health disaster acutely impacting children. More gravely, I witnessed how the Trump Administration is using, and weaponizing, the tent courts to inflict suffering through the illegal ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy which must end immediately.”
The four veterans observed the work of Team Brownsville a citizen-driven organization which serves meals to asylum-seekers stuck in Mexico and attended immigration court hearings for migrants subject to Remain in Mexico taking place in tents, where asylum-seekers represent themselves at rushed hearings. More than ninety-five percent of asylum-seekers returned to Mexico did not have a lawyer. The lack of access to representation and legal information is only one of the many challenges that asylum-seekers face while waiting in Mexico. Additional Human Rights First researchers are observing MPP tent court hearings in Laredo, Texas this week.
As Human Rights First reported today, in the year that the MPP policy has been forcing people into dangerous conditions in Mexico:
- DHS officers have returned more than 59,000 asylum-seekers and migrants to wait in danger in Mexico under MPP, with at least 26,000 turned back to Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros in the notoriously dangerous state of Tamaulipas, which the U.S. State Department designates as a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” - the same threat assessment given to Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, and Syria. Those returned to Mexico under MPP include at least 7,709 Cubans, 15,009 Guatemalans, 21,786 Hondurans, 1,414 Nicaraguans, 7,668 Salvadorans, and 2,046 Venezuelans.
- Human Rights First has tracked at least 816 public reports of murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, and other violent attacks against asylum-seekers and migrants returned to Mexico under MPP. Immigration judges have ordered asylum-seekers deported if they are unable to attend their court hearings because they are kidnapped or face other dangers on the perilous journey to the tent courts.
- Human Rights First’s tally of attacks on MPP returnees includes at least 201 publicly reported cases of kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of children returned to Mexico. Multiple children have reported to staff at a volunteer-run clinic that they fear human traffickers are targeting the camp in Matamoros.
- Asylum-seekers returned to Mexico are targeted for kidnapping and assault in shelters, in taxis and buses, on the streets while looking for food, work, and shelter, on their way to and from U.S. immigration court, and even while seeking help from Mexican police and migration officers.
- In Matamoros, where children under five make up one-quarter of the 2,500 asylum seekers living in tents by the port of entry, children have suffered sometimes near-freezing temperatures, sexual and physical assaults, malnutrition, and a range of life-threatening conditions as explained by health workers. Multiple children in Matamoros have reported that they fear human traffickers are targeting the camp there.
- DHS and DOJ continue to shield MPP from public scrutiny – barring some reporters and independent legal observers from individual asylum hearings at the Laredo and Brownsville, Texas tent courts, prohibiting some observers from bringing paper or writing utensils to take notes and scheduling hearings at the Fort Worth Immigration Adjudication Center, which is not open to the public. At the tent courts this week, the veterans and human rights researchers were told there is a policy prohibiting the public from observing individual asylum hearings in tent courts, even if the asylum seekers consents - a move which shrouds life-or-death decisions in secrecy.
- Asylum seekers are left to wait in grave danger for many months under MPP. Members of the delegation observed scheduling hearings set for April 2020 for Cuban, Honduran and Guatemalan asylum seekers who had sought protection at the U.S. port of entry in October of 2019 – creating a six-month wait even before setting a date for a final individual hearing.
- Refugees from Cuba, Venezuela and other countries are being denied asylum in MPP under the Trump administration’s third-country transit ban, which leaves many refugees separated from their children, at risk of return to persecution, and/or in legal limbo.
Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher with Human Rights First’s refugee protection team, called on Congress to take whatever steps it can to stop and limit the implementation of MPP: “This policy is illegal and we welcome the congressional investigation into its impact on vulnerable people. At one year, the grave harms inflicted by this dangerous policy are only growing. In addition to exercising its oversight over the DHS, we encourage Congress to come and witness the human rights abuses being done in the name of the American people at the border, withhold appropriations that the Trump Administration needs to carry out this cruel policy and to move the Refugee Protection Act forward.”