What You May Have Missed Over the Holidays Regarding the Trump Administration’s Assault on U.S. Asylum Policy
There was no break over the holidays for the growing humanitarian crisis and violence against asylum seekers at the southern border due to the Trump administration’s asylum policies, according to multiple media reports over the last few weeks. With more than 56,000 asylum seekers already returned to Mexico to indefinitely await the review of their asylum claims, the Trump administration has decided to expand the MPP program to more ports of entry. Just yesterday, Buzzfeed reported that the Trump administration has expanded a new program to send asylum seekers from Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala. Meanwhile, the violence facing vulnerable asylum seekers waiting in Mexico continues while basic human needs, such as shelter, food and health care, are not being met. In some cases, families are being separated through the MPP policy with DHS sending parents back to Mexico without their children and DHS placing their children in federal custody. For asylum seekers waiting and hoping for their day in court to argue their case, the odds continue to be stacked against them.
And that is a summary of just the last few weeks of media reports regarding Trump’s reckless and cruel asylum policies. Below is a summary of each of these media reports.
Expansion of “Remain in Mexico”
On January 2, 2020, Reuters reported that the Trump administration expanded the “Remain in Mexico” policy to Tucson, Arizona, a policy implemented over the last year in Texas and California, resulting in more than 56,000 asylum seekers already returned to Mexico under the policy.
“Deporting” Asylum Seekers to Guatemala
According to Buzzfeed, the Trump administration is expanding a program to send asylum seekers to Guatemala, a country with its own record of violence against women, an extremely weak asylum system, and a country that produces thousands of asylum seekers itself. Buzzfeed reports:
The Trump administration will now deport Mexican nationals — including families — who come to the US southern border seeking asylum to Guatemala….The program, which was signed in July, was implemented in late November…As of late December 2019, 43 asylum-seekers from El Salvador and Honduras have been deported to Guatemala under the agreement, according to government data obtained by BuzzFeed News. The plan was initially limited to adult asylum-seekers but was expanded to families on Dec. 10, according to documentation seen by BuzzFeed News.
Over the holidays, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, “Violence Plagues Migrants Under U.S. ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program,” that describes the danger vulnerable asylum seekers face when they are returned to Mexico:
…[I]n cities like Nuevo Laredo, migrants are sitting ducks. Over the years, thousands have reported being threatened, extorted or kidnapped by criminal groups, who prey upon asylum seekers at bus stations and other public spaces.
A typical scheme involves kidnapping migrants and holding them until a relative in the U.S. wires money, typically thousands of dollars, in ransom money. Gangs have also attacked shelters and even some Mexican clergy members who help migrants.
There have been 636 reported cases of kidnapping, rape, torture and other violent crimes against migrants returned to Mexico under Remain in Mexico, according to Human Rights First, which interviews victims in border cities and advocates for migrants’ due process rights. At least 138 of these incidents involved kidnappings of children.
Basic Human Needs Unmet & No One is Coordinating a Humanitarian Response
Despite the expansive nature of the “Remain in Mexico” program and the resulting humanitarian needs of over 56,000 vulnerable asylum seekers waiting in Mexico, according to Vox, there is no nation or international refugee agency coordinating the desperately-needed humanitarian response. Vox reports:
The US has continued to send aid to Mexico — $139 million in 2018 — but otherwise, advocates haven’t seen any evidence of a US presence on the Mexican side of the border administering aid to migrants…
The Mexican government has deployed its National Guard and military to help improve security in some of the border cities, and has also opened a small number of municipal shelters, but is doing little else to protect the migrants who have been relegated to makeshift tent settlements for now.
Nor has the United Nations filled the growing need for humanitarian aid along the border. Its agencies dealing with refugees and migrants, which depend on US dollars to operate throughout the world, are in a delicate political position: The United States, which wrote many of the laws governing the treatment of asylum seekers, now appears to be breaking them.
UN agencies are working on improving capacity in migrant shelters, sending migrants back to their home countries and informing migrants of their options, but haven’t delivered aid to the encampments.
As Ursela Ojeda of Women’s Refugee Commission stated, “‘It’s a humanitarian crisis without a coordinated humanitarian response.’”
As a result, the humanitarian response is ad hoc and haphazard. According to Vox, instead of a coordinated response by the U.S., Mexico, and/or the U.N., “Basic health care services come from US-based nonprofits, including Global Response Management, which are stretched thin. Other volunteers cross the border daily, bringing supplies like bedding and food.”
On December 22, 2019, the New York Times reported, “A Cuban doctor waiting for asylum in the United States has become the only full-time physician at a makeshift encampment for 2,500 migrants in Mexico.” The result of this uncoordinated humanitarian response over the holidays — “An outbreak of chicken pox [that] has forced the temporary closure of a shelter housing  Central American migrants sent to Mexico from the United States,…as officials sought to contain the highly contagious virus,” as reported in the New York Times.
The cruelty of the Trump administration’s family separation policies that we saw in the summer of 2018 and continue to see in smaller, but significant, numbers today takes on a new twist of cruelty when combined with the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. Although CBP declined to comment on the number of children separated from parents under “Remain in Mexico,” Buzzfeed reported over the holidays that it has identified at least some where the parent was returned to Mexico while children remained in the U.S. under federal custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The Illusion of Due Process
Since the “Remain in Mexico” policy was implemented, there have been scores of reports decrying major due process violations. Over the holidays, we learned more from various media reports:
- Vulnerable asylum seekers expected to travel hundreds of miles without assistance to attend court hearings: According to CBS News, “Under an expansion of the controversial ‘Remain in Mexico’ program,…[m]igrants returned to Nogales will be scheduled for court hearings at the immigration court in El Paso, Texas. Since the U.S. is not providing them transportation, these asylum-seekers will have to find a way to travel across hundreds of miles of territory and two Mexican border states to reach Ciudad Juárez, the city neighboring El Paso.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “The change will require migrants to traverse one of the most dangerous regions of Mexico, along the border between the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, where rival gangs are engaged in a turf battle.”
- Tent courts: Since the Trump administration set up tent courts — “rows of shipping containers beneath large wedding-style tents” where judges preside over asylum hearings via videoconference, as described by the Wall Street Journal — for asylum seekers returned to Mexico, lawyers for asylum seekers and immigration advocates have described a litany of due process violations. Over the holidays, without addressing the vast majority of these serious concerns, DHS said it would finally open the courts to the public, as has been the case in other immigration courts across the country for decades, by regulation.
- Violence, lack of resources, bureaucratic issues contribute to asylum seekers missing critical court hearings to establish asylum: According to CNN, “Half of the people waiting in Mexico for a scheduled court date were not present at their last hearing…To compare, nearly 90 percent of immigrants who are in the US attended their court hearing…” The reasons reported by CNN — “Some people might not have a way of getting to their respective entry point to then be transported to court in the US; some have been kidnapped or assaulted while waiting in Mexico; and others have chosen to return to their native country after experiencing difficult conditions in encampments…” One woman was so fearful of being sexually assaulted a second time while waiting in Mexico that she moved deeper into Mexico, making it impossible to return to the U.S. for her hearing.
- Expedited deportations of asylum seekers not subject to “Remain in Mexico”: For those who are spared a return to Mexico, CBS News reported that the Trump administration is now formally implementing what was once a pilot program to expedite asylum applications and deportations under a program called, “Prompt Asylum Claim Review” (PACR). “[A]dvocates and immigration lawyers say it denies asylum-seekers due process, restricts access to attorneys and effectively ensures their prompt deportation.”