Returned migrants board a bus to Tegucigalpa in front the Center for Returned Migrants, San Pedro Sula airport, Honduras, September 2014.

(San Pedro Sula) – The US government’s rapid-fire screening of unauthorized migrants at the border is sending Central Americans back to the risk of serious harm, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. 

The 44-page report, “‘You Don’t Have Rights Here’: US Border Screening and Returns of Central Americans to Risk of Serious Harm,” details the US border policies and practices that place migrants at risk of serious harm back home, based on the accounts of people sent back to Honduras, people in detention, and an analysis of deportation data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Hondurans who fled extortion and threats from brutal gangs faced fast-track screening procedures in the US that resulted in their deportation without a genuine opportunity to claim asylum. Several of those returned told Human Rights Watch that after their return, they were afraid to leave their houses, fearing for their lives.

“The US government’s fast-track screening of migrants is ignoring the very real fears of the people arriving at the border,” said Clara Long, US immigration researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “In its frenzy to stem the tide of migrants from Central America, the US is sending asylum seekers back to the threat of murder, rape, and other violence.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 migrants, including 25 recent deportees in Honduras and 10 Central Americans in migrant detention centers in Artesia, New Mexico and in Karnes, Texas.

In recent years, US officials have apprehended growing numbers of Central Americans crossing the US-Mexico border without authorization. Migrants are fleeing for many reasons, among them rising rates of violence fueled by gangs and drug violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

The vast majority of these people are placed in detention. They undergo a hasty two-part assessment by US officials with no right to appear before an immigration judge or asylum officer unless they are flagged by the Border Patrol agents who apprehended them or other immigration officers as being afraid to return to their country. The Border Patrol agents, who are responsible for the initial screening of migrants, are failing to identify asylum seekers so that they can move on through the asylum process, Human Rights Watch said.

“Alicia R.,” a Honduran woman who witnessed her mother’s murder by a gang and was deported with her two children, ages 3 and 10, in August 2014, said her case never got beyond US Border Patrol: “I told them, I cried, that I couldn’t go back to my country … but they deported us.”

Data for 2011 and 2012 that Human Rights Watch obtained from US Customs and Border Protection under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that few Central American migrants are identified by the Border Patrol as people fearing return to their country. The data show that the vast majority of Hondurans who arrived during that period, at least 80 percent, were placed in summary removal proceedings, and that only 1.9 percent were flagged as possible asylum seekers by US Customs and Border Protection. The percentages for people from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala are similar, ranging from 0.1 to 5.5 percent. By comparison, the Border Patrol flagged 21 percent of migrants from other countries for secondary, in-depth screening.

Customs and Border Protection’s methods for interviewing migrants in the expedited removal process had serious flaws, Human Rights Watch said. Uniformed Border Patrol officers are usually armed while apprehending migrants; when they interview the migrants a few hours or days later, their holsters are empty but visible; and their interviews are often conducted in crowded settings without confidentiality. These factors appear to hamper the ability of officers to identify those in need of more in-depth screening. Migrants told Human Rights Watch that Border Patrol officers seemed singularly focused on deporting them, which hindered them from making their fears known.

“Mateo S.,” a migrant deported in September 2014, said that when he told a Border Patrol officer of the threats against his life in Honduras, “He told me there was nothing I could do and I didn’t have a case so there was no reason to dispute the deportation…. I told him he was violating my right to life and he said, ‘You don’t have rights here.’”

International law binding on the United States prohibits the return of anyone to a country where they face serious risks to their lives or safety. International law also discourages the detention of asylum seekers and prohibits the detention of migrant children. Migrants facing deportation are entitled to access to legal counsel.

The Obama administration and the US Congress should stop fast-tracking Central American migrants for deportation and allow them adequate opportunity to make a claim for asylum, Human Rights Watch said. The administration should reverse its decision to expand the detention of migrant families, evidenced by the creation in June of two new family detention facilities and plans announced in September to build a 2,400-bed facility in Dilley, Texas. The government should also increase migrants’ access to legal counsel, which would improve handling of asylum claims and help ensure that the US does not return people to countries where they face repression or torture.

“The Obama administration needs to immediately roll back its dramatic expansion of family detention,” Long said. “Making an asylum claim in a foreign language and country is hard enough without having to do it from behind locked doors, while caring for scared and anxious children, and without a lawyer.”