Last month, the Biden administration released a new “collaborative migration management strategy” for engaging with the United States’ southern neighbors. Among other things, the report calls for building and improving other nations’ systems of asylum to better protect migrants.

The administration hopes that this will encourage migrants to claim asylum in countries like Mexico rather than journeying farther north. As an example, the report details how the U.S. supported the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, enabling new field offices and tripling its annual processing of asylum seekers.

But Mexico still treats migrants as potential security threats, despite some efforts at reform. Its system struggles to handle increasing numbers of asylum claims filed by individuals from Central America, Venezuela and elsewhere.

Nonprofit and civil society groups in Mexico help fill the gap, offering legal assistance, shelter and, in some cases, advocating to the Mexican government for improved responses. We recently surveyed these non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, to learn more about their needs. Our findings suggest that these groups could help improve the government’s approach to asylum, especially if their leaders could build direct relationships with U.S. policymakers.

Background

U.S. influence on Mexico’s migration and asylum system has intensified since 2019, when the number of Central American asylum seekers and migrants trying to reach the U.S.-Mexico border increased. Hoping to reduce U.S.-bound migration, the Trump administration threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican goods if Mexico did not stop more migrants from crossing the border. The result was the U.S.-Mexico Joint Declaration, which deployed Mexico’s National Guard throughout the country — particularly along its southern border — to prevent migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala from traveling through Mexico to the United States.

When the Trump administration forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court hearings in its Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), the Mexican government and civil society organizations became responsible for those individuals’ basic needs. They weren’t prepared for the tens of thousands of asylum seekers sent back under the MPP, in addition to others stuck in limbo across Mexico.

Elsewhere in the world, developing countries’ migration-related NGOs often benefit from connections with policymakers in the region’s dominant nation. In Morocco, for example, NGOs helped pressure the government to enact new migration and asylum legislation in 2013, backed by European organizations and funding networks. In Turkey, migration-related NGOs have benefited from direct ties and meetings with European policymakers, human rights lawyers and NGOs, gaining advice, funds and strategies for dealing with the Turkish government.

Mexican NGOs want stronger U.S. connections

To find out whether Mexican NGOs also wanted connections with U.S. policymakers like White House officials, State Department officers and the like, we conducted an online survey in March of 29 individuals from 27 Mexican asylum-focused organizations, with a 40 percent response rate. These organizations were geographically varied, operating in northern border cities like Monterey and Tijuana, in Mexico City, and in southern Mexican states like Chiapas and Oaxaca. They varied in terms of the size of the organization and the kinds of services they provide. Larger organizations tended to provide a greater scope of services and sometimes advocated for better government policies, while smaller organizations might only offer one service like emergency shelter and accommodation. On the whole, we interviewed directors, presidents and managers.

Ninety percent of our respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that establishing or maintaining stronger connections with U.S. NGOs and policymakers would be helpful, as you can see in the figure below.

Almost 70 percent of respondents said their organization was currently connected to at least one organization doing similar work in the United States, as you can see in blue, but only 20 percent are currently connected to U.S. policymakers, as you can see in orange.

Nearly 70 percent of respondents identified the lack of an introduction as the main barrier to establishing connections with U.S. policymakers. Additionally, time and resources were secondary barriers. Respondents also said that time, resources, language barriers and their belief that U.S. policymakers were not interested in working with them were barriers.

Broadening Mexican NGOs’ abilities to advocate for better treatment of asylum seekers

In our survey, Mexican NGOs told us that connections to U.S. policymakers would help them advocate for a Mexican response to asylum seekers that focuses on access to legal status and social services, rather than security. They would be particularly interested in speaking with people on Vice President Harris’s team; State Department officials; or senators and staff on the U.S. Foreign Relations Committee. Such connections could bring leverage to use when pressuring the Mexican government. Specifically, our respondents said that talking with U.S. policymakers would enable them to challenge the Mexican government’s current approach to asylum, focused on keeping migrants out rather than ensuring they had basic services and protection.

Respondents also wanted to be able to talk with U.S. policymakers directly so they could explain what asylum seekers in Mexico actually need and how U.S. agencies’ actions are affecting them. Right now, Mexican NGOs are likely to only indirectly receive U.S. financial assistance, which trickles down through major international organizations like the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Often such groups can only fund direct services like food and shelter. That limits Mexican NGOs’ operations, leaving them without the time and resources to advocate for better national policies or strategize about approaches that could reduce the need.

If Mexican NGOs had access to U.S. policymakers and State Department officials, they believe they could offer on-the-ground observations and suggestions that could better inform U.S. policies about asylum seekers.

The Biden administration has already reached out to the Mexican government about collaborating on regional migration and asylum issues. But if the Biden administration is serious about working toward a stronger domestic asylum system in Mexico, our research indicates that its officials might wish to reach out directly to a broad range of Mexican NGOs, building relationships and finding ways to collaborate.

Kevin Cole is the monitoring, evaluation, research and learning manager at the Refugee Solidarity Network.

Zaid Hydari is the executive director of the Refugee Solidarity Network and adjunct professor at the Fordham University School of Law.

Ana Martín Gil is a research consultant with the women’s rights, human rights and refugees program at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Kelsey Norman (@kelseypnorman) is a fellow and director at the women’s rights, human rights and refugees program at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.