(Washington, DC) – The United States government should initiate an internal investigation into the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, Human Rights Watch said today after submitting a formal complaint to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The department should be held accountable for its failure to protect asylum seekers under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program from routine targeting in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
The complaint was submitted to the DHS Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, both of which are responsible for ensuring that the department complies with the law and its own policies.
“Under the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program, the Department of Homeland Security has knowingly sent tens of thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers across the border where criminal organizations have long preyed on migrants,” said Ariana Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The DHS inspector general should investigate and act since Homeland Security has run roughshod over federal and international law by returning asylum seekers to harm.”
Under the MPP program – known as “Remain in Mexico” – non-Mexican asylum seekers in the United States are sent to cities in Mexico while awaiting asylum hearings in US immigration court. The program has had serious rights consequences for returned asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the US government to immediately end the program, stop returning asylum seekers to Mexico, and instead ensure them access to humanitarian support, safety, and due process in immigration court proceedings.
Criminal organizations that routinely kidnap migrants operate on the assumption that most asylum seekers in the MPP program have US relatives who can be extorted for thousands of dollars. The program has created an exploitation boom, turning asylum seekers with US-based family members into commodities and adding to cartel profits. A kidnapped asylum seeker reported that one of his captors told him the cartel had been hiring. “Since the United States is deporting so many through here, we are capturing them and that has meant more work,” his captor told him. “We’re saturated.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the dangers for these asylum seekers, as they are compelled to wait for delayed hearings in crowded camps and shelters with limited and rudimentary sanitation facilities and where social distancing is impossible.
Asylum seekers expelled to the Mexican state of Tamaulipas under the program are routinely targeted for life-threatening violence including kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, Human Rights Watch said. This was predictable given the well-documented history of persecution of migrants in that region by both criminal organizations and Mexican law enforcement, as well as longstanding US State Department warnings against travel to the state due to “crime and kidnapping” carried out with near total impunity.
In Tamaulipas alone, Human Rights Watch identified:
- At least 32 instances of kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of asylum seekers in the MPP program – mostly by criminal organizations – between November 2019 and January 2020.
- Those instances involved at least 80 asylum seekers kidnapped; another 19 described kidnapping attempts.
- Among those, at least 38 children were kidnapped or subjected to kidnapping attempts.
- Reports by 4 women of sexual assault during kidnapping incidents.
- Five brief abductions and extortion by Mexican police, a practice known as “express kidnapping.”
One woman said she was sexually assaulted in front of her child after being kidnapped for the second time and another woman reported that she had a miscarriage after being punched in the stomach during a robbery. In multiple incidents, victims said Mexican police either ignored reports of violence or were themselves implicated in the crimes.
Asylum seekers in the MPP program can be easily identifiable in Mexico. They often appear foreign, speak with noticeable accents, or do not speak Spanish at all. Customs and Border Protection agents routinely send them to Mexico without shoelaces – initially taken to keep them from harming themselves in detention – and with plastic folders containing their notice to appear in court, making them easier for criminal elements to identify.
Asylum seekers gave Human Rights Watch consistent accounts of being kidnapped from bus terminals, taxis, and even outside or within Mexican immigration offices near US ports of entry. They said that kidnappers made knowing reference to the fact that they were “migrants,” “refugees,” or “foreigners” and referred to them by their country of origin or asked where they were from.
The armed operatives quickly confiscated cellphones and transported them to “stash houses” where they frequently saw other kidnapped asylum seekers. They described an apparently standardized intake process: their abductors photographed them, inspected identity and court documents, and logged identifying information into a notebook. Criminal organizations then set an extortion amount – ranging from $2,000 to more than $20,000 per person – and then searched through asylum seekers’ phone contacts for US-based numbers to call.
One asylum seeker from El Salvador traveling with his wife and young son told a DHS agent that he had been punched “several times” while being kidnapped for ransom. “Two times whenever I was on the phone [with] my mother-in-law asking about the money. They would hit me to make me scream and convince her to send the money,” based on an attorney’s interview notes.
“Migrants fleeing persecution have a right to safely pursue their US asylum cases from within the United States,” Sawyer said. “Homeland Security should immediately stop returning asylum seekers to Tamaulipas State and end the abusive ‘Remain in Mexico’ program.”