A new report released Tuesday demonstrates the consequences of this policy in fresh detail and, hopefully, will draw more attention to its hidden toll.
The key findings of the report are that far larger percentages of migrants returned to Mexico are exposed to threats of violence than has been previously established — and that the process the administration established to supposedly prevent that from happening is full of holes.
This validates major criticisms of the policy — also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — which requires migrants to wait in Mexico pending their hearings in the United States, ostensibly to prevent them from disappearing into the interior before those hearings.
Critics have said it’s deeply cruel to knowingly force migrants to wait in countries where they’ll be at risk, and that our processes don’t adequately safeguard against this, in violation of international human rights norms.
The report, by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California at San Diego, surveyed 607 such migrants who were returned to Mexico, in collaboration with migrant shelters in Tijuana and Mexicali. This may be the most comprehensive effort yet to survey the experiences of migrants returned to Mexico, who at last count numbered around 50,000.
Approximately 1 out of every 4 of our respondents (23.1%) have been threatened with physical violence while in Mexico as they await their immigration court dates.
Just over 1 out of every 5 of our respondents (21.9%) who are seeking asylum with children under the age of 18 have been threatened with physical violence while in Mexico.
Altogether, 56.5% of our respondents who have been threatened with physical violence reported that these threats turned into actual experiences of physical violence, including being beaten, robbed, and extorted.
Dogged journalism — see this harrowing account by Molly O’Toole — has documented that some returned migrants face violent attack, sexual assault and even death. But it’s been murky how widespread this phenomenon is.
As the new report notes, however, these new findings suggest that these dire experiences “amount to systematic trends.”
It’s bad enough that 1 out of 4 report threats of violence — with a large percentage of those actually experiencing it — but on top of this, the report finds that just over 1 in 3 respondents have experienced homelessness while waiting in Mexico.
“In response to a humanitarian crisis at our southern border, instead of living up to our obligations to provide protection from persecution to individuals seeking asylum, the U.S. is outsourcing this responsibility,” Tom Wong, the report’s lead researcher and an associate professor of political science at USCD, told me.
“We’re literally sending people potentially to die,” Wong continued. “It’s unclear how many will experience violence, but the data show that a larger percentage than we expected have already faced violence, and that this will grow the longer asylum seekers wait in Mexico.”
Wong added that the data show how the United States may be abandoning the international rights norm known as non-refoulement, the principle that no one should be returned to a place where they’ll face cruel treatment or serious harm.
“Part of what we see is the United States turning its back not just on asylum seekers but on this fundamental human rights principle,” Wong said.
Serious problems with process
Another big finding in the report concerns process. Under MPP, if asylum seekers in U.S. territory declare in their initial interview a fear of being returned to Mexico, they’re supposed to get a second screening by a trained asylum officer designed to see whether that fear is credible.
If so, they are supposed to be exempted from return. As Hamed Aleaziz reports, some inside the administration wanted more protections put in place, but that didn’t happen.
Now the new report finds that under these less stringent protections, many migrants are returned without even getting that second hearing. It finds that a staggering 9 out of 10 migrants initially interviewed expressed fear of being returned to Mexico. And:
Of these individuals, 40.4% were given a secondary interview and 59.6% were not. In other words, U.S. immigration officials further investigated the fears of approximately 4 out of every 10 who expressed fear about being returned to Mexico. However, approximately 6 out of every 10 were placed into the Remain in Mexico policy without any further investigation into the fears that they expressed about being returned to Mexico.
If accurate, this means a solid majority of those who expressed a fear of return to Mexico didn’t even get their second hearing to see whether those fears were credible.
“What we see in the data is that the administration is paying lip service to these safeguards that are supposed to be in place against non-refoulement,” Wong told me. “These second interviews are not even happening.”
It’s possible this could impact the legal battle over the program. A federal judge blocked it on the grounds that returning migrants to “unduly dangerous circumstances” may violate federal law protecting them, but the courts have allowed it to move forward pending litigation. This report seems to underscore that legal vulnerability.
Meanwhile, as Nick Miroff recently noted, the “underlying structural forces” of “poverty, drought and danger in Central America” that have propelled enormous numbers of migrants to seek refuge here “remain unchanged.”
What has changed — for the worse — is our commitment to the principle that desperate people fleeing horrific conditions have the right to appeal for refuge here and receive a fair hearing without fear of being returned to face catastrophe.