Testimony for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: Hearing on the Human Rights Situation of Migrants and Refugees in the United States

October 28, 2021 

Good afternoon, commissioners.

My name is Yael Schacher, and I work at Refugees International, an independent organization based in Washington D.C. that advocates on behalf of forcibly displaced people.

On October 20th, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told leaders of countries throughout the Americas that migration is a shared problem that is foremost humanitarian, but that immediately must be met by cooperation on increased enforcement and visa controls, and, later, by addressing factors such as climate change that lead to displacement. Secretary Blinken also mentioned the need to improve asylum processes and expand legal pathways, resettlement, and protection. But, over the past nine months, the Biden administration has focused primarily on collaboration on enforcement to prevent migrants from accessing protection at the U.S. southern border. Title 42, a public health provision designed to ensure migration does not spread COVID-19, has been misused to expel asylum seekers without according them access to asylum screening or processes or to testing or treatment for COVID-19.  The result has been significant violations of human rights.

In August, I visited several cities in Texas and Tamaulipas, Mexico to understand the implementation of Title 42. What struck me foremost was arbitrariness, both in the treatment of asylum seekers and of health protocols. In Reynosa, I met many Hondurans and Guatemalans—adults and families—who were expelled under Title 42 and living in unsafe and unhealthy conditions in a large encampment in the plaza near the port of entry. In Texas, I met adults from Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba who were sent to the Port Isabel immigration prison. Others, however, were released to shelters or bus stations after spending several days in outdoor Border Patrol processing facilities under poor conditions. In the CBP processing center under the Anzalduas bridge, the heat was oppressive and interviews for legal paperwork conducted in flimsy tents that offered no privacy. Families who were not expelled were released to join relatives in the United States and pursue their asylum claims in court but some were first sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement-run Family Processing Centers or contracted hotels where they had access to COVID testing and vaccines.

The arbitrariness and lack of access to protection have terrible consequences. I met a pregnant and ill Honduran woman in the encampment in Reynosa. She fled Honduras with her husband and three-year old son after her store was burned down by gangs who had demanded an extortion payment they could not pay. Once in northern Mexico, she worried—because there was no way for her to know otherwise—that if the family crossed the border together, they might be separated, and her husband sent to detention. So she crossed a day after her husband and son. As it turned out, her husband and son were released and sent to a shelter in Houston.  She was held overnight in a freezing Border Patrol cell before being expelled to Reynosa. She became ill while in the hielera, fears for her safety in the Reynosa camp, and has no way of reuniting with her family.   

Speaking to asylum seekers it became clear that messaging “do not come” and prioritizing enforcement over devising new protections and legal pathways for the forcibly displaced is misdirected and has devastating human costs.  In the San Antonio bus station, I  interviewed a Haitian couple who spoke about a journey from Chile—where they faced racism, inability to get documents and work—through the Darien Gap and then through Mexico that took 20 months. In the camp in Reynosa,  a Guatemalan father was experiencing chest pain from extreme anxiety; he was worried about the his wife and infant daughter back in Alta Verapraz. A hurricane had completely destroyed their home—and injured the 9 year old son he brought with him as it fell down. Father and son has tried to cross the border but been expelled back to Reynosa. So many in the camp were parents with children who were between the ages of eight and ten. Mexico and the United States are thus, cynically, agreeing that these children cannot be detained (as provided under the new Mexican child protection law) but also can be expelled and left to live in deprivation and without any access to services. Safety is also a tremendous concern. A Honduran woman in the encampment reported that she had been raped the plaza the previous day, apparently targeted because of her sexual orientation, 

People were slightly better situated at the Senda de Vida shelter in Reynosa, but also extremely desperate. Under pressure of litigation over Title 42, the Biden administration agreed to allow particularly vulnerable people identified by attorneys and NGOs working at the border to be admitted through ports of entry despite Title 42. This exemption process lasted through the spring and summer of 2021 but, by August, no new cases were being referred for admission. (In a Laredo shelter, I interviewed a Honduran mother and her children who were among the last people to be exempted from Title 42. They “lost everything” in the November 2020 hurricane and then moved to live with relatives; the following month, the mother’s 10 and 12 year old children witnessed their cousin murdered by a gang. They all fled to Mexico, reached the U.S. border in early 2020 and were expelled back to Reynosa. Scared to stay there, they traveled to Monterrey where they were able to find a shelter and thereby access to the exemption process). People at the Reynosa shelter were understandably in despair; in the words of a pastor at the shelter, “they realized the door was closing” and didn’t understand why they should be shut out or when the door might open again. I had helped a Honduran family enter the United States through the exemption process in the spring—a woman experiencing a dangerous pregnancy (placentia privia), her husband, her mother, and her severely disabled sister. In late August I could do nothing for the woman’s 16 year old sister—who was stuck in Tapachula, Mexico, and very scared she would be rapidly deported by Mexican authorities.

Even while the exemption process was in place, making it through Mexico to the U.S.  port of entry through was dangerous and impeded by Mexican authorities. The mother and her disabled daughter were robbed and attacked just outside the port of entry when reporting for humanitarian parole pursuant to her exemption. An American lawyer whom I spoke to worked all summer to help severely ill migrants in Tapachula travel northward and present at U.S. ports of entry after obtaining exemptions from Title 42.  The lawyer secured approval from DHS for the admission of a Cuban man with metastatic cancer, along with his wife and child, who suffered from convulsions. But Mexican officials refused for several months to issue them travel documents and allow them to fly from Tapachula to Matamoros. When they finally made it, they were held for hours by Mexican immigration authorities upon arrival at the Matamoros airport.  The same happened to a Guatemalan migrant family who had been approved for an exemption and who arrived in Matamoros with a severely sick child. When advocates tried to get them out of the Matamoros airport,  Mexican officials accused them of involvement in trafficking. Neither family was able to access the medical care they needed, or even had adequate food and shelter in Mexico but Mexican authorities sought to keep them from accessing refuge in the United States. The lawyer also tried to help many Haitians in Matamoros get Title 42 exemptions. The lawyer referred to the Title 42 exemption process as “a Schindler’s list that created an apartheid situation.” Migrants who were not in shelters or who couldn’t reach attorneys or organizations—frequently the most vulnerable—were left out. Non-Spanish speakers—especially indigenous migrants and Haitians– received fewer exemptions.

Further, beginning in August, the United States and Mexico began coordinating to expel migrants from both countries without access to protection screenings. The United States started flying asylum seekers from McAllen, Texas to Tapachula and Villahermosa. From there, Mexico bussed the asylum seekers to a remote part of the Guatemalan border and left them there or bussed them through Guatemala to the Honduran border. Thousands of Central Americans have been returned in this way without any access to protection.  Mexico and the United States also coordinated on the recent mass expulsion of Haitians. As U.S. officials expelled Haitians directly from Texas to Haiti (a country in the midst of political and humanitarian crisis and wracked by gang violence), Mexican officials in Ciudad Acuna and Tamaulipas rounded up Haitians and sent them southward. And Mexican authorities are now refusing to allow asylum seekers in southern Mexico to travel northward, keeping them effectively confined in Tapachula where they have little access to work, housing, and services and a prolonged wait if they try to seek asylum. At the northern border, Mexico and the United States are negotiating the reimposition of the Remain in Mexico program, which will trap asylum seekers in insecure places like Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros–again without an ability to meet their most basic needs.  

This human rights catastrophe is what happens when collaboration on enforcement supplants cooperation on protection.

Cover Photo Caption: A U.S. Border Patrol agent speaks with Central American immigrants at the border fence after they crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico on February 01, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. Photo Credit: John Moore/Getty Images.