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US: Asylum Seekers Returned to Uncertainty, Danger in Mexico

Little Safety, Shelter, Due Process While Awaiting Immigration Hearings

Immigrants attempt to enter the US between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, on April 29, 2019.  © 2019 Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

(El Paso, TX) – The United States government should cease returning asylum seekers to wait in Mexico during their US immigration court proceedings, Human Rights Watch and the Hope Border Institute said in a report released today.

Human Rights Watch’s 50-page report, “‘We Can’t Help You Here’: US Returns of Asylum Seekers to Mexico,” finds that thousands of asylum seekers from Central America and elsewhere, including more than 4,780 children, are facing potentially dangerous and unlivable conditions after US authorities return them to Mexico. The US and Mexico agreed on June 7, 2019 to dramatically expand the returns program.

“The US government has advanced a dangerous fiction that asylum seekers returned to Mexico will have access to work and shelter and a fair chance in US immigration courts,” said Clara Long, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “Instead, US border officials are stranding mothers with small children and other vulnerable migrants in Mexican border cities where their safety and security are at risk.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) first began returning asylum seekers to Mexico under its Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program at the San Ysidro port of entry in southern California on January 29, and soon after to Calexico. The program expanded to El Paso, across the border from Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua state by mid-March. Since then, Ciudad Juárez has surpassed both Tijuana and Mexicali as hosting the highest number of asylum seekers placed in the MPP program.

Human Rights Watch and the Hope Border Institute conducted 23 in-depth interviews with asylum seekers, as well as interviews with US and Mexico government officials, local activists, and attorneys, and observed MPP immigration court hearings for 69 individuals. Human Rights Watch learned of serious harms to asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez including kidnapping, sexual assault, and violence.

Kimberlyn (last name withheld), a 23-year-old Honduran asylum seeker, said that a taxi driver kidnapped her and her 5-year-old daughter upon returning to Ciudad Juárez after her first court hearing in the US in April. The driver released them within hours but said he would kill them if her family in Honduras did not pay an $800 ransom, which deposit receipts showed they did. Kimberlyn said she still feels unsafe.

The vulnerability of returned asylum seekers is heightened by a lack of shelter, food, and other necessities – and extremely limited resources. Despite earlier promises, the Mexican government has not provided work visas to asylum seekers in the MPP program, ultimately limiting their means of survival and exposing them to exploitation.

US Border Patrol agents have also refused to return asylum seekers’ personal identification documents, Human Rights Watch said. Without identification, asylum seekers may not be able to receive money sent by relatives. In addition, those without documents typically cannot travel to seek asylum elsewhere, find safer locations within Mexico, or return home – leaving them trapped in dangerous, ill-equipped Mexican border cities.

As of June 24, more than fifteen thousand asylum seekers primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador had been returned to Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, and Mexicali with instructions to appear – sometimes months later – in immigration courts across the border in the US. According to the Mexican government, the returned asylum seekers included at least 13 pregnant women, LGBT people, and persons with mental or physical disabilities, who face greater risks.

On June 26, the union representing federal asylum officers, who implement the MPP program – filed an amicus brief in federal court condemning the program as “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation and our international and domestic legal obligations.”

Ciudad Juárez suffers from a severe shortage of shelter space for asylum seekers and other migrants. Together with the 6,600 asylum seekers already waiting in Ciudad Juárez for entry into the US through a metering system, that limits the number who can apply for asylum each day, returned and waiting asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez could total as many as 12,700. Meanwhile, Chihuahua state officials estimated that there are only 1,000 available shelter beds in the city, nearly all church-affiliated.

“Carmen S.” said that she was returned to Mexico in May to await an asylum adjudication with her 6 and 3-year-old sons. However, her first immigration court hearing is not scheduled until October. Back in Mexico, local officials told her there was no shelter space for her family.  “We took to the street with nowhere to go,” Carmen said. She eventually found a shelter that would take her family for seven days, but she had no idea what they would do next. “Why did they make the court hearing so long from now knowing that I have nothing?” Lawyers in El Paso said asylum seekers being returned now are assigned their first court dates in June 2020.

Immigration attorneys and advocates in El Paso said that the need for legal services for returned asylum seekers in Mexico was overwhelming. In hearings for 54 individuals observed by Human Rights Watch in El Paso between May 8-10, only three asylum seekers were represented by legal counsel. Similarly, in hearings for 27 individuals observed by Human Rights Watch in San Diego on May 22, only two people were represented by legal counsel. El Paso immigration attorneys said they faced serious barriers to providing representation to returned asylum seekers, including asylum seekers’ lack of fixed addresses and telephone numbers.

Human Rights Watch and the Hope Border Institute called on the Department of Homeland Security to immediately end the MPP program and cease returning asylum seekers to Mexico and ensure their safety, access to humanitarian support, and due process throughout their asylum proceedings. The US government should also reduce the backlog and provide more opportunities for pro bono legal representation in the immigration court system. Finally, the government should avoid detaining migrants, especially asylum seekers, children, families, those with physical or mental health concerns, and other vulnerable populations.

“Sending asylum seekers to Mexico has left them with little to no meaningful access to legal representation in the United States, contrary to US government claims,” said Edith Tapia, policy research analyst at the Hope Border Institute in El Paso. The institute has been observing immigration court hearings for asylum seekers in the MPP program and documenting the situation of returned asylum seekers in Ciudad Juarez.

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