U.S. Policy in Mexico and Central America: Ensuring Effective Policies to Address the Crisis at the Border

Refugees International submitted the following statement for the record in a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on “U.S. Policy in Mexico and Central America: Ensuring Effective Policies to Address the Crisis at the Border” on September 25, 2019.

Thank for you for the opportunity to submit this written statement for this important hearing today.

Refugees International is a non-governmental organization that advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people in parts of the world impacted by conflict, persecution, and forced displacement. We do not accept government or United Nations funding, which helps ensure that our advocacy is impartial and independent.

Refugees International is very concerned about the administration’s negotiated arrangements to return asylum seekers to danger in Mexico and Central America. These policies and agreements effectively bypass the laws Congress adopted to protect refugees. Contrary to what the administration claims, these policies will also increase smuggling and trafficking.

The so-called Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), or Remain in Mexico policy, has returned 47,000 Spanish speaking asylum seekers—from the Northern Triangle of Central America, but also from Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela—to cities in northern Mexico where they confront significant dangers. On visits to the border, Refugees International has spoken to individuals and families who have been kidnapped and extorted after being returned under this policy in ways that directly implicate the U.S. and Mexican governments. For instance, one father and son, who had been active participants in the political opposition in Nicaragua and asked for asylum in Texas, were understandably afraid to stay in Nuevo Laredo when returned there by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in July. So they boarded a bus paid for by the Mexican government that took people from Nuevo Laredo and dumped them on the streets of Monterrey. Last week the man and his son had to make their way back to Nuevo Laredo to report on the international bridge at 4:30 a.m. for a U.S. immigration court date. They were kidnapped by a group of armed men on the way. 

Not surprisingly, many in the MPP program are too afraid or too poor to wait for their court dates several weeks away. Several hundred asylum seekers returned to Ciudad Juarez have opted for the Assisted Voluntary Return Program administered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and paid for by the Department of State. IOM is not communicating with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the Department of Justice about who it returns home so that, when asylum seekers miss their immigration court hearings, they are deported in abstentia and then barred from asylum or unification with relatives in the United States (including relatives who are U.S. citizens or who have been living in the United States for up to two decades with Temporary Protected Status). Others in the MPP program have boarded buses paid for by the Mexican government, unaware that they were being transported all the way to Tapachula in southern Mexico.

Bowing to pressure from the United States, Mexico has blocked, detained, and deported increasing numbers of asylum seekers. Unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable to deportation from Mexico and have little access to the asylum system, so are pushed into hiding and into the hands of gangs and narco-traffickers. Others who have been returned to Mexico in the MPP program, desperate for refuge in the United States, hire smugglers to reenter the United States, especially through the notoriously dangerous state of Tamaulipas. In Matamoros, Refugees International met one Honduran asylum seeker in the MPP program who had ant bites all over her torso from having been abandoned in the desert by traffickers who had subjected her to forced prostitution in Reynosa. It is important to note that this woman had fled Honduras initially because she had been raped there; the man who investigated the rape had been murdered, and the court papers about her case had disappeared. This asylum seeker was returned to Mexico in the MPP program despite explaining to CBP what happened to her both in Honduras and in Mexico.   

Through deals bolstering border security throughout the region, the Trump administration has aided Central American governments—governments that cannot adequately protect their own populations—to prevent these populations from migrating, effectively preventing refugees from being able to flee to safety. The Trump administration also claims that its agreements to return asylum seekers to El Salvador and Guatemala will come with U.S. efforts to build capacity of those countries’ asylum systems. But that capacity does not now exist, and—of course—asylum capacity building does not automatically create safety and security in the broader society. In any event, under U.S. law, safe third country agreements require that capacity to process asylum seekers exist before any asylum seekers are returned. If implemented, the agreements will effectively trap asylum seekers in a region unequipped to process their claims fairly, keep them safe, or guarantee them decent living conditions.

Capacity building is important, especially as a means to promote responsibility sharing, and the United Nations has an existing program to steadily build the capacity of the Guatemalan asylum system, among others, and to promote shared responsibility for refugees in the region. But the Trump administration sees capacity building not as a means of responsibility sharing, but rather as a tool of responsibility shifting. Instead of sharing responsibility for the second largest refugee crisis in the world today—that of the Venezuelans—the United States is returning Venezuelan asylum seekers to Mexico under the MPP program and negotiating with Honduras for their return to that country. If the United States were truly interested in the safety of those forced to flee their home countries, it would not be banning asylum at the southern border, sending asylum seekers to danger, encouraging the closing of all borders, and shifting responsibility for refugees to other countries in the region. Instead of threatening to zero out all refugee resettlement, the administration would be creating a robust refugee resettlement program for refugees from Central America. And instead of cutting off humanitarian aid to the region, it would support efforts to address the root causes forcing people to flee, such as corruption, violence, climate change, and poverty.

Members of this committee understand the vulnerabilities of those in Mexico and Central America. From addressing root causes to emergency humanitarian aid to development investment, members of both parties have supported U.S. policies that have not only saved lives but provided protection and support. But much work remains, and the administration’s devastating actions send a dangerous signal to an already fragile region.