As asylum seekers are pushed to Mexico, activists raise alarm to human rights abuses

Immigrant advocates are working to build broad public outrage and opposition to the harmful Remain in Mexico policy.
Protestors gather in Tucson in late 2019 to stand against the implementation of MPP in Arizona and to reiterate the capacity of the Tucson community to offer hospitality to asylum-seekers. (WNV/Alison Wood)

Nearly 60,000 people have been forcibly returned to Mexico by the U.S. government since the implementation of Remain in Mexico just over one year ago. This policy has created a humanitarian aid disaster — and while there was briefly hope of judicial action to end Remain in Mexico, the Supreme Court upheld the policy in a decision on March 11. Judicial approval of Remain in Mexico means that community action on this policy is more important than ever, and community groups are organizing to end it in the face of extreme challenges.

The officially titled “Migrant Protection Protocols,” or MPP, is referred to as the Remain in Mexico policy by immigrant advocates. Remain in Mexico is a policy of forcibly returning people who have made asylum claims to Mexican border cities to wait for their court dates, often for many months. This policy is part of the Trump administration’s intentional effort to discourage people from seeking asylum in the United States. First implemented in the San Diego sector in January 2019, Remain in Mexico has expanded rapidly across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Saying that this policy is for “migrant protection” is intentionally misleading; Remain in Mexico has created more danger for migrants. Under this policy, asylum seekers are returned to places where they are targeted for kidnapping, extortion and violence at the hands of criminal gangs. A recent Human Rights First report documented 816 cases of violence against people returned through Remain in Mexico, which is almost certainly an undercount given the number of abuses that are not able to be documented.

People returned to Mexico under this policy have difficulty securing lawyers, and they have an extraordinarily low chance of being granted asylum even if they are connected with legal resources. Of the nearly 30,000 asylum cases that had been completed under MPP as of January 2020, only 187 resulted in a favorable asylum outcome.

A profound human rights disaster

When people seeking asylum arrive on the south side of the U.S.-Mexico border en route to the United States, they endure threats and violence from organized crime, hostility from governments on both sides of the border, humanitarian aid non-governmental organizations with finite capacity, and indefinite wait times created by the Trump administration’s metering policy. Metering forces asylum seekers to wait for months before being permitted by Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, to enter a port of entry and present their asylum claims.

Razor wire adorns the border wall between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora.” (WNV/Katie Sharar)

Under Remain in Mexico, people petitioning for asylum go from one wait in precarious conditions on the border to another, removed by the U.S. government to cities where they are highly vulnerable to violence, extortion, and kidnapping by organized crime. Asylum seekers forced back to Mexico also find themselves in risky living conditions. They often go without adequate food and water, access to bathrooms or medical care, and live in tents, which is hazardous in extreme weather conditions in both the winter and summer.

Faced with two periods of indefinite waiting in hostile or dangerous locations, people on the move are forced to try to discern the least worst option. Some, faced with a six-month wait through metering, may decide to try to cross around a port of entry, others through fatal desert terrain. Still others, out of desperation, have sent their children to present at the border as unaccompanied minors, hoping that will exempt their children from the threatening wait time of MPP.

In Nogales, Sonora, asylum-seekers — mostly single adults from Cuba and Venezuela — decided on November 26, 2019, to buy a car and drive to the border through the vehicle lanes instead of waiting months to be allowed to cross. They made this decision with the understanding that they would be held in immigration detention instead of being “released” through Remain in Mexico — recognizing that prison is a “safer” place for them to wait than Juarez.

Asylum seekers make hard decisions like these in the presence of danger. They experience violence and death in appalling numbers — in CBP custody and out of it. Asylum seekers forcibly returned to Mexico through MPP are specifically targeted by violent actors as a vulnerable population, and experience high rates of violence.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers wait for months in Nogales, Sonora. Humanitarian groups such as the Kino Border Initiative provide meals, basic medical care, and legal assistance while they are stranded in the border city. (WNV/April Wong)

This current moment of pandemic is putting asylum-seekers at even greater risk, with poor sanitation and limited medical care available to the large numbers of people returned to Mexico and living in close quarters in places like Matamoros and Nogales. The Trump administration is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to further choke off access to asylum and due process under the guise of “public health.”

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently found that, even before wide-spread coronavirus, the combined policies of metering and Remain in Mexico “put the lives of migrants and their families in danger and at times resulted in their needless deaths.” As government actions and public silence force people into increasingly desperate choices, there will inevitably be more violence and more deaths.

How much will we endure before taking action?

In the summer of 2018, many people around the world were rightfully outraged by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy that intentionally separated thousands of families. The mass organizing around the practice — through protests, media coverage, organizing at the border, calls to elected representatives and the mobilization of newly-activated groups — formally ended the policy several months after it began.

This was one of the few victories for the immigrant rights movement during an administration hell-bent on choking off asylum. The appalling family-separation policy largely died because of sustained public expressions of outrage.

Remain in Mexico intentionally takes advantage of the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon, removing people seeking asylum from our spheres of attention.

Remain in Mexico is arguably as bad a policy as family separation — and it in fact may be worse, having been called “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world” by an expert. Yet Remain in Mexico is largely operated without widespread public backlash outside of migrant-focused organizations and communities. Most organizing, to date, has been regional or issue-specific.

In Tucson, Arizona, organizing against MPP began in November 2019, when the policy was first implemented in the Tucson Border Patrol sector. The first protest took place on Nov. 29, and was attended by more than 120 people. This rally kicked off the monthly meeting of a loose coalition of non-profit organizations, humanitarian aid groups, and church workers — individuals with varying degrees of organizational affiliation and backing, gathering with layered goals of ending MPP in Tucson, ending Remain in Mexico nationally, and saving asylum for all. There are challenges to building any movement, but the group organizing in Tucson has identified a number of challenges particular to organizing against Remain in Mexico.

At first, Remain in Mexico sounds like a relatively straightforward policy: asylum seekers wait in Mexico until their cases are decided. However, the ways it is implemented, and the impacts that implementation has on the lives of real people, are profoundly complex. In Tucson, the community has the dubious benefit of witnessing first-hand the impacts of Remain in Mexico — both the community in Nogales, that is now receiving asylum seekers returned through MPP, and the humanitarian aid community in Tucson that is seeing fewer guests released to transitional shelters.

In order to motivate enough people to action to end this policy, a parallel educational effort has to be carried out explaining what MPP actually entails, and why it is harmful. To this end, the coalition in Tucson is simultaneously focused on holding monthly rallies to continue educating the wider community and on strategizing around legislative advocacy.

At the same time, there is very little community accountability or transparency within ICE and the Border Patrol, meaning that it is next to impossible to get clear and accurate information about implementation. This lack of information makes it harder to educate the public about who is being impacted by Remain in Mexico. In Tucson, over the last three months during which Remain in Mexico has been in effect, humanitarian aid groups have worked to collect anecdotal evidence from those impacted.

At a protest on Jan. 31, just after the one-year anniversary of this policy, community members read testimonies from people returned to Nogales under MPP. There is some evidence that people seeking asylum have been returned from Tucson to Juarez and Nogales, or held in family detention centers in Texas. Shelters in Tucson stand empty, with no word from ICE of what has happened or if another change can be expected.

With people impacted by Remain in Mexico geographically removed from the people who could make an impact in changing that policy, organizing group illuminate the policy’s harm from afar is an additional challenge. It is undeniable that the images of “kids in cages” — and their grieving parents — provoked empathy and fueled the public outrage that ended family separation as an official policy. Photos of the MPP camp in Matamoros do exist, but without more context, images of people living in tents may not be as shocking to the viewer or provoke action. 

Many asylum seekers wait for months just yards from the United States.” (WNV/April Wong)

Seeing a photo of a group of people returned to Nogales through Remain in Mexico, for example, does not truly illustrate the risk those people face. The true danger of Remain in Mexico is invisible. Remain in Mexico intentionally takes advantage of the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon, removing people seeking asylum from our spheres of attention. Any images of those suffering under MPP just do not communicate the true danger of the policy.

There is an underlying tension here, too, of wanting to both lift up and spread word of the harm being done by MPP without objectifying people who are experiencing this harm. Parents and children separated at our southern border may or may not have consented to being photographed, or to having those photographs shared.

Another border coalition tried to work around this challenge, using the image of shoelaces as a work-around. Border Patrol returns migrants to Mexico without their shoelaces (confiscated in detention centers), and this lack of shoelaces becomes a tell-tale sign for organized crime that that person is new in town, without connections and vulnerable. But even this evocative image necessitates explanation for it to land with the right emotional (and motivating) weight.

In the coalition forming against MPP in Tucson, a majority of participants are employed by or consistently volunteer with migrant humanitarian aid groups. Within this group, these members know the most about what Remain in Mexico looks like on the ground. They have the strongest connections with impacted persons and what is often the strongest emotional motivation to organize. They are also the most overwhelmed, overloaded and burned out.

Of course, it’s not just protest organizers who are burned out. The people who show up to MPP protests in Tucson are also coming out to protests and events for many other issues. Activating people on yet another awful policy in a sea of awful policies — particularly one that is complicated, far away and with obscured impacts — is a challenge. It is easy to lose interest and momentum around a single issue when there is so much going on. Joanna Williams, of the Kino Border Initiative, a binational Catholic organization that provides humanitarian assistance to migrants and asylum-seekers, explicitly spoke to this issue at the Tucson protest in December. “When we protested against family separation, family separation ended,” she told the crowd. “We must not tire of protesting now.”

At its core, the movement to end Remain in Mexico is about saving the asylum process and keeping people safe.

The implementation of this policy also changes frequently. When Remain in Mexico began in the Tucson sector, people seeking asylum were bussed to Juarez after being processed. The first protest against the policy focused on this point. Protesters’ signs bore messages like “No buses to Juarez.” By the time the second protest took place, on Dec.16, implementation had shifted to returning people processed in Tucson to Nogales. In response, protest slogans shifted to “Save Asylum” and “There is Room at the Inn.”

As implementation of MPP continues to change, and new policies emerge to further limit access to asylum, it becomes ever more critical for organizers to focus on the key message. At its core, the movement to end Remain in Mexico is about saving the asylum process and keeping people safe.

Remain in Mexico is unnecessary from any angle but the one that seeks hardship for asylum seekers. The policy is a humanitarian, legal, and moral crisis. The United States is sending people back to conditions of near-certain danger, and without a widespread public response, the crisis is almost certain to worsen. While MPP is only one piece of a broader governmental strategy against asylum that continues to grow, it requires a sustained response.

Organizing in Tucson continues; the next rally was scheduled for March 13, but was canceled due to coronavirus concerns. Social distancing and the cancellation of events has caused a shift toward planning for digital advocacy instead. A call-in campaign to Arizona congressional representatives and ever-widening educational efforts continue online as well.

Creativity and stories gifted by those impacted are the biggest assets the group has — and it will take both to widen the circle of organizers and focus sustained national attention on saving asylum. This crisis is ongoing, and organizers are working hard to adjust in response to the shifting target created by a government that seems determined to kill asylum entirely. 

This story was produced by Fellowship of Reconciliation


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