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December 05, 2019

Human Rights Fiasco: The Trump Administration’s Dangerous Asylum Returns Continue

In January 2019, the Trump Administration started forcibly returning asylum seekers to Mexico under a new policy farcically dubbed the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP). Waiting months in Mexico for their hearings, asylum-seeking men, women, and children from, among other countries, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela face life-threatening dangers.

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Despite overwhelming evidence that this illegal policy is a human rights catastrophe, Trump Administration and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials continue to implement, defend, and expand it. In October, DHS expanded MPP returns from Arizona and began forced returns through Eagle Pass, Texas to Piedras Negras, Mexico. There and in other dangerous border cities, including Tijuana, Mexicali, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros, asylum seekers and migrants returned under MPP face peril wherever they turn. They have been beaten, kidnapped, and raped in shelters, on the way to and from U.S. immigration court hearings, and on the street while looking for work, housing, and food.

Trump Administration and DHS officials are turning a blind eye to these human rights abuses, touting MPP as an alternative to family separation, a way to reduce “overcrowding” in detention facilities, and one of DHS’s “most successful initiatives,” which has “achieved operational effectiveness” by reducing the number of asylum seekers arriving at the southern border. These claims of “success” by DHS officials ignore the severe harms inflicted on the asylum seekers and migrants returned to Mexico under MPP. Mark Morgan, acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), has even dismissed the hundreds of public reports of cases of torture, rape, kidnapping, and assault against people in the MPP program as “anecdotal stuff.”

MPP is not only immoral; it’s also illegal. Both U.S. law and treaties ratified by the United States prohibit the government from returning asylum seekers to persecution and torture. At the same time, the policy flouts asylum laws and due process protections Congress adopted for refugees seeking protection at the border.

The administration is using MPP in tandem with other illegal policies, including turn-backs and the third-country transit asylum ban, to subvert U.S. law. The result is effectively a near-ban on asylum. DHS has forced more than 60,000 asylum seekers and other migrants to wait in Mexico under MPP. In addition, some 21,000 are stranded in Mexico due to metering—the illegal policy of turning back asylum applicants at ports of entry. In November, the administration also began to take steps toward implementing asylum-seeker transfer agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

This report is based on interviews with asylum seekers stranded in Mexico, attorneys, court monitors, academic researchers, and Mexican government officials; field research in October and November in Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, and Tijuana; observation of MPP immigration court hearings in November and December; and reports from human rights organizations, legal monitors, and the media. Human Rights First observed proceedings at the Laredo MPP tent court remotely from the San Antonio immigration court because CBP denied Human Rights First’s requests for access to the facility, just as it denied us access to the Brownsville tent court in September. This report builds on our March 2019, August 2019, and October 2019 reports.