Barred at the Border: Wait “Lists” Leave Asylum Seekers in Peril at Texas Ports of Entry
While President Trump reportedly demanded that former Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen resign over her failure to block all asylum seekers from entering the country, the United States has been closing its borders to many asylum seekers for years by illegally turning away and restricting people seeking refuge at official land border crossings. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have physically blocked access to ports of entry and refused to refer people seeking asylum to a protection screening interview or immigration court proceedings where they can request asylum.
In March 2019, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan acknowledged this practice of so-called “metering” or “queue management” in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but claimed that only three ports of entry have long wait times for asylum seekers and that at “most ports of entry […] [t]here is no waiting at all.” McAleenan also denied that restrictions on asylum processing at ports of entry push asylum seekers to cross illegally between ports.
Yet recent research by Human Rights First, other human rights monitors, and academic researchers shows that asylum seekers remain stranded for weeks or months in Mexico often on waiting “lists” now common in at least ten border towns from Tijuana to Matamoros. In danger and at risk of refoulement to their home countries, asylum seekers are at the mercy of the individuals in Mexico who run these “lists” in order to seek asylum in the United States. Some cross the border between ports of entry—afraid to wait in danger in Mexico or at times unaware of how to even get on a “list.”
In late February and early March, Human Rights First visited three ports of entry In Texas, at Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Laredo, where researchers found hundreds of asylum seekers waiting for weeks and in some cases months because of CBP restrictions on asylum processing. These included asylum seekers from the group of 1,800 Central American migrants whom the Trump Administration attempted to block from reaching the Eagle Pass port in early February by deploying hundreds of active-duty military troops, Border Patrol agents, and Texas state troopers in a “show of force.” This report is based on field observations and interviews with asylum seekers, attorneys, researchers, migrant shelter directors, and government officials.
The findings include:
- Systematic illegal turn-backs of asylum seekers by CBP forced hundreds of asylum seekers to wait for one or more months to seek asylum by late February 2019. Asylum seekers who intended to seek protection at an official crossing point reported that they crossed elsewhere because they were unable to physically reach the port of entry and feared remaining in Mexico.
- CBP directly collaborated with the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Migración (National Migration Institute or INM) and other Mexican government officials to prevent asylum seekers, including Mexican nationals, from reaching ports of entry and in dictating the number and demographics of asylum seekers accepted. These actions violate the right of refugees to seek international protection, including the right of Mexican nationals to leave their country to request asylum.
- Asylum seekers marooned in Mexico have been kidnapped, assaulted, and extorted and are at risk of deportation by Mexican migration officers (INM). In Piedras Negras, a young Honduran man was beaten by a state police officer, and INM deported three asylum seekers who were arrested for loitering. In Nuevo Laredo, many asylum seekers are kidnapped including a gay couple from Honduras who were separated, beaten, threatened, and extorted.
- The use of “lists” placed asylum seekers waiting to request protection in the United States at risk of being identified and located in Mexico and susceptible to extortion by “list” managers. In Piedras Negras, where private individuals have run the list on behalf of the municipality, a previous “list” manager allegedly extracted payments from asylum seekers to join a parallel, expedited “list.” In Ciudad Acuña, Grupos Beta allegedly extorts between $500-$1,300 from migrants to move their names to the top of the list.
Rather than continuing these orchestrated restrictions on asylum processing at ports of entry in violation of U.S. law and international treaty obligations, Human Rights First urges the Trump Administration to:
- Direct CBP to deploy more officers to U.S. ports of entry to restore orderly asylum processing.
- Work with Congress to increase, not cut, support for initiatives to counter the human rights abuses, economic deprivations, and climate displacement prompting people to flee Central America.
- Work with Congress to bolster UN Refugee Agency efforts to expand and improve regional refugee protection systems—including in Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama—so more refugees can seek protection in these countries.