(Washington, DC, March 5, 2021) – Asylum seekers sent to Mexico by the administration of former US president Donald Trump have suffered violence and extortion by Mexican police, immigration agents, and criminal groups, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since January 2019, the United States has effectively closed its southern border to asylum seekers, leaving many to face abuses in Mexico. The Trump administration, under its Remain in Mexico program, sent more than 71,000 asylum seekers to Mexico to await asylum hearings. Additionally, since March 2020, the US has expelled migrants more than 400,000 times, many to Mexico, including asylum seekers who were denied the chance to make their claims, under travel restrictions purportedly to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Those interviewed have said they were afraid to report crimes and abuse to Mexican authorities and were frequently unable to get the documents they needed to work, get health care, or send their children to school. Nearly half of asylum seekers under the Remain in Mexico program lost their cases after missing court dates. Human Rights Watch has spoken to families who missed court dates because they were kidnapped in Mexico. Others were bused south by the Mexican government, leaving them thousands of miles from their hearing locations.
“Tens of thousands of migrant families, including Venezuelans seeking protection from torture, persecution, and arbitrary imprisonment, have been abandoned by the US and Mexican governments to suffer extortion and violence in Mexico,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “With President Biden taking positive steps to reverse some of the Trump administration’s most abusive immigration policies, President López Obrador is running out of excuses to look the other way while Mexican officials continue to participate in abuses against migrants.”
President Joe Biden should ensure that plans to phase out Remain in Mexico include asylum seekers whose cases were unfairly terminated while they were in Mexico and end the policy under which the US expels migrants to Mexico without due process. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador should ensure that asylum seekers still waiting in Mexico are able to work and get health care and education, and that those responsible for crimes against migrants, including Mexican police and immigration agents, are brought to justice.
As part of its ongoing research on the crisis in Venezuela, which has driven more than 5.5 million people from the country, Human Rights Watch interviewed, between September and December 2020, 71 Venezuelans who had traveled through Mexico to seek asylum in the US and were sent to wait in Mexico under the Remain in Mexico program. Most were traveling with partners, children, or other family members. Human Rights Watch also spoke to government officials, humanitarian and migrants’ rights groups, and two lawyers representing asylum seekers and, in many cases, reviewed corroborating evidence, including police reports, photographs, and immigration documents.
The findings are consistent with previous Human Rights Watch research, including interviewing asylum seekers of many nationalities in Mexico, visiting migrant shelters and camps along the US-Mexican border, reviewing legal documents, observing court hearings, and speaking with lawyers and humanitarian workers. Human Rights Watch has consistently found that migrants in Mexico are exposed to rape, kidnapping, extortion, assault, and psychological trauma.
The nearly 1,600 Venezuelans who still have active asylum cases under Remain in Mexico represent just a small portion of the hundreds of thousands who have been sent by the United States to Mexico in the past two years.
Since taking office, President Biden has suspended new enrollments in Remain in Mexico – formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (or MPP) – and is allowing the 25,000 asylum seekers who have managed to stay current on court dates to begin signing up to receive a date to enter the United States. This is a positive step that will bring the US closer to respecting human rights norms, Human Rights Watch said. However, the Biden administration continues to expel asylum seekers arriving at the border on misleading public health grounds, and has made no provision for the 30,000 whose asylum cases were unfairly terminated after they were sent to Mexico.
Nearly every Venezuelan interviewed reported fleeing political persecution, torture, or harassment. Their accounts were consistent with previous Human Rights Watch research documenting the Nicolás Maduro government’s brutal crackdown on dissent, as well as reporting by the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s office and a United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, both of which concluded based on the information available to them at this stage of their inquiries that crimes against humanity may have been committed in Venezuela.
Nearly half of those interviewed said Mexican police, immigration agents, or criminal groups targeted them for extortion. In 16 cases, asylum seekers said Mexican immigration agents or police officers had pulled them off buses or out of line at the airport and threatened to deport them if they did not pay a bribe. Some said agents detained them and threatened to kill them or hand them over to cartels if they did not pay.
In 27 cases, asylum seekers said criminal groups had intercepted them at border crossings, bus stations, hotels, or elsewhere in border cities. The criminals had kidnapped or threatened to kidnap the asylum seekers and demanded ransom or protection payments ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Most victims said they were targeted because they were migrants. The abusers often identified their victims by inspecting their identity and court documents. In some cases, the abuser already had their photo or identified them out of a crowd. Many victims said they noticed strangers watching them or taking photos of them before or after the crime.
These reports are consistent with previous Human Rights Watch research documenting a common process by which criminal gangs kidnap migrants of many nationalities and register them: taking photos, inspecting identity and court documents, and logging identifying information for future reference. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, international groups, and the media have reported that Mexican officials and criminal groups regularly target asylum seekers traveling through Mexico to kidnap and extort them.
Reflecting that migrants are preyed upon by officials and criminals alike, one man said, “I don’t understand who is a criminal and who is the law.”
Many said they fear going outside or interacting with Mexican officials, even to find work or medical care, and avoid speaking in front of strangers for fear their accents will make them targets. They fear their children will be kidnapped if enrolled in school.
“I’m terrified of going outside,” one woman said. “I don’t know what is worse – being here or in Venezuela.”
Under the agreement that established Remain in Mexico, the Mexican government should guarantee that asylum seekers have access to work, health care, and education. But unlike other migrants granted legal status in Mexico, they are not given photo ID cards confirming that status. As a result, many are turned away by employers or public officials who say they have never heard of Remain in Mexico or do not understand the legal status it confers.
Some said they were unable to open bank accounts or receive international money transfers. One said her family has gone hungry because they can neither work nor receive transfers. Several could not receive treatment for serious medical conditions. Children had missed months of school, even before the pandemic closed classrooms.
They had received little to no support or information from the Mexican government. Many did not know they had the right to use public services or did not understand how to get them, from the documents they had received.
“The dangerous conditions facing asylum seekers under Remain in Mexico are inexcusable,” Vivanco said. “Until the Biden administration ends this abusive program, the Mexican government needs to act to ensure that asylum seekers can stay safely in Mexico and access essential services.”
For additional information on the findings, recommendations, and a selection of cases, please see below. Unless noted otherwise, the cases are based on the direct testimony of interviewees.
Why They Fled Venezuela
Nearly all the Venezuelans interviewed in Mexico were fleeing some form of political persecution, torture, or harassment in Venezuela.
Among the reasons interviewees cited for seeking asylum in the US were abuses by Venezuelan security forces including the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN), the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), and state police agencies, as well as armed pro-government groups, called colectivos in Venezuela. Some had been opposition party members or political activists. Some had simply participated in protests, in some cases for access to essential services such as water and electricity. Others were public-sector employees who had refused to participate in pro-government rallies or had shared an anti-government image on social media.
Jonathan, who like others interviewed is identified by a pseudonym for his protection, said he was detained in April 2019 while participating in a protest supporting the opposition leader Leopoldo López. He was held for three days, beaten, and forced to sleep standing up, and was eventually charged with crimes including terrorism, conspiracy, and use of explosive devices. His family had to sell belongings to pay a US$3,500 bribe to get him out. For months, as his trial was repeatedly postponed, he said, agents stalked his house, taking photos. His lawyer eventually warned him that the government intended to revoke his conditional liberty, and he fled Venezuela with his wife and two children, ages 3 and 13. In March 2020, they were sent to wait in Mexico after applying for asylum in the US. As of January 2021, they were waiting in a border city.
Mayra, a human rights lawyer and opposition party activist, said that in 2019 she helped organize marches demanding that the government allow humanitarian aid to enter Venezuela. Afterwards officials and strangers began sending threatening messages, she said. Agents eventually forced their way into her home, violently detained her, blindfolded her, and dragged her to a truck, where she lost consciousness three times, as they beat her and administered electric shocks for six hours. They brought her to a guerilla camp near the border, where a man threatened to kill her unless she left the country and stopped participating in political rallies, before returning her to the city and leaving her at a National Guard station. While she was recovering at home, a friend filed a police report. But when she went to certify it, two people kidnapped her, saying the police had destroyed the report. She fled the country shortly before a warrant was issued for her arrest. She has been waiting under Remain in Mexico since September 2019.
Targeted for Kidnapping, Extortion in Mexico
Extortion by Mexican Police and Immigration Agents
Sixteen people interviewed said that Mexican immigration agents or police officers detained them and demanded bribes – sometimes thousands of dollars. They said officials threatened to deport them, make them disappear, or turn them over to cartels if they did not pay. Some said they were extorted as they entered the country. Others were stopped at an airport, and immigration agents took them to holding areas to demand payment.
Ángel and his family flew from Panama City to Monterrey, in northern Mexico, in October 2019, on their way to apply for asylum at the US border. He said a Mexican immigration agent, holding photos of them that appeared to have been taken earlier that day at the Panama airport, pulled them out of the arrivals line and placed them in a holding cell overnight. The next morning, another agent demanded a bribe of $100 per person, saying he could deport them if they did not pay.
He paid, and he and his family continued onto a flight to the border city of Ciudad Juárez. Officers in federal and municipal police uniforms there pulled all Venezuelans and Cubans out of line, again demanding bribes of $100 per person, with one telling them, “We know you are trying to get to the border.” When Ángel refused to pay, the same officers held him and his family until after dark, drove them in a van to an abandoned alleyway, and said that if they did not pay $6,000, they would be handed over to a cartel.
When Ángel said he did not have that much, they beat his father and broke open the family’s suitcases, spreading the contents on the ground. Ángel’s sister handed over her purse, which contained $3,000 – all the money they had for the trip. The officers drove away, and in the middle of the night, the family walked to the border, where they began the asylum process.
Mauricio said that when he landed at the Cancun airport in October 2019, an immigration agent took him into a holding area and demanded a $300 bribe to enter the country. He paid, but the agent disappeared, and he was deported. In December 2019, he tried again, this time flying to Mexico City, where an immigration agent demanded a $500 bribe. He paid, and the agent gave him a visa.
He walked into the main terminal, where a group of police officers stopped him and made him pay a third bribe of $400. One officer also took a photo of his passport and boarding pass and sent it to someone. The next day, at the gate for his flight to the border, three police officers approached him and made him pay $300 to avoid deportation. In Ciudad Juárez, police stopped him a fifth time, demanding his remaining $300. “We are just a business for them,” Mauricio said.
Human Rights Watch requested information from Mexico’s National Migration Institute about any known allegations that immigration agents had extorted migrants but has received no reply.
Kidnapping and Extortion by Criminal Groups
Yaneth and her husband, Rafael, said they arrived in Reynosa by bus in August 2019, and asked a taxi driver to take them to a well-known migrant shelter. Instead, the driver took them to an abandoned house, where kidnapped families from Honduras, Cuba, and El Salvador were being held. When the kidnappers learned that the couple had come to seek asylum in the US, they demanded $1,500, as a “fee” to cross the border, threatening to kill them if they did not pay. They paid and were taken to a border bridge. “We never reported the kidnapping to the police,” Yaneth said. “We were too scared.”
When Josue and his family arrived in Reynosa, he said, they put their names on the “metering” list, a system that limits the number of people who can apply for asylum each day at US ports of entry. Two days later, as they waited for their turn to present themselves at the border to apply for asylum, a man approached them in the hotel lobby saying he worked for the bridge “owner” and that they would have to pay a “fee” of $300 for each family member to cross. The director of a nearby migrant shelter told them they would be in more danger if they did not pay or if they told the police.
Josue paid. But days later, the man returned and demanded $3,000. Josue’s family did not have that much money and were afraid to continue waiting so they swam across the river to the US. Authorities there detained them, received their asylum application, and sent them to Matamoros under Remain in Mexico. Josue never reported the crime because “everyone knows the criminals are in charge on the border.”
Nowhere to Turn
Most asylum seekers interviewed said they had been victims of crime but did not report it to the police because they believed the authorities were complicit or they feared reporting would expose them to further crimes or abuses by officials. Some who attempted to report crimes said they were turned away either for being foreigners or because authorities said crimes against migrants were “normal,” and there was nothing they could do.
When Maykel arrived in Reynosa in August 2019, he said, a criminal group kidnapped him and extorted a $2,000 “fee” to cross the border. When he was sent to Mexico under Remain in Mexico, he reported the crime, giving his address and phone number so that authorities could follow up. Instead, police officers began coming to his rented apartment to extort him, he said. They threatened to hand him over to the cartels unless he paid for protection. Maykel had to move twice and change his phone number to avoid police harassment.
Ángeles said three men she suspected were members of a criminal organization attacked and beat her. When she went to the police to file a report, they left her waiting for hours, she said. Finally, an officer told her unofficially: “You are wasting your time here. No one will help you. The police don’t want to get involved with those people,” she said. Ángeles understood “those people” to mean organized crime groups, so she left.
Human Rights Watch requested information on how state police and prosecutors in six border states respond to reports of crimes against migrants. State authorities in Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas provided statistics on reports of crimes against migrants but said they had no records of cases in which migrants were unable to file police reports and that state officials had been instructed to respect the human rights of all victims regardless of nationality or migratory status. Nuevo León officials did not respond.
Barriers to Essential Services in Mexico
Asylum seekers under the Remain in Mexico program have a right to access essential services, such as public education and basic health care, and to work in Mexico. In December 2018, Mexico committed to guaranteeing that people in the program would “fully enjoy the rights and liberties recognized in the Constitution, international treaties to which Mexico is a party, and the Migration Law.” In June 2019, when the US and Mexico agreed to expand the program, Mexico reiterated its commitment, saying it would offer “work opportunities,” access to “healthcare and education,” and “human rights protection.”
Nearly all the asylum seekers interviewed described barriers to exercising those rights.
Navigating a Web of Documents, Agencies
Everyone in Remain in Mexico is entitled to a Mexican national ID number known as a CURP (Clave Única de Registro de Población). Immigration officials are required to provide a national ID number to each person entering the country under the program, but some interviewees said they never received one.
A national ID number provides access to public education and certain basic health services. People can also use it to apply for a tax ID, known as an RFC number (Registro Federal de Contribuyentes), which is needed to work legally, and a social security number, which is needed to use Mexico’s national healthcare system, IMSS (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social).
Lack of Information, Misinformation by Authorities
Most people interviewed did not know they had the right to use public services or work legally – or how to obtain the necessary documents. As a result, some had not attempted to obtain formal work, enroll children in school, or get public health care. Even though every member of one woman’s family received ID and social security numbers, she said, officials wrongly told them they could not access hospitals, so they have not attempted to use public health care. Some said they could not obtain the correct documents, so employers or public officials refused to offer them jobs or services.
When Andrea’s 11-year-old daughter injured her head, Andrea took her to a public hospital, she said. But hospital workers refused treatment because Andrea did not have a national ID or social security number. She encountered the same problem when she tried to enroll her daughter in public school. Andrea went to an immigration office to ask how to obtain needed documents, but agents said they couldn’t help her.
When Ana Laura and her children, 19 and 12, were placed in Remain in Mexico in October 2019, they were not given national ID numbers. Later, she said, when they tried to report that they had been victims of extortion, police turned them away, saying they could not file a report without a national ID number. When she and her husband tried to apply for national ID numbers, immigration agents refused to help, saying they did not know what documentation to give people in the Remain in Mexico program.
Employers or public officials have even turned away even people who hold all the legal documents required to work or access services. The confusion often stems from the type of ID people in Remain in Mexico receive. Instead of the photo ID cards given to most temporary residents, they get the same stamped paper form as tourists, valid for only a few months, usually until the date of the asylum seeker’s next hearing in the US. They must repeatedly exchange the paper form for a new one. Most people in the program have been doing this for at least a year.
Israel received a national ID number when he and his family were placed in Remain in Mexico in July 2019, and he applied for a tax ID and social security number. Even so, he said, his family was repeatedly denied care at public hospitals. The same thing happened when he applied for jobs. “They asked to see my residence permit. I showed them the piece of paper they give us at the border, but they said I needed an ID card,” he said.
When Marcela, an engineer, arrived under Remain in Mexico in December 2019, she began looking for work in her field, attending a job fair and sending her resume to many companies. But no one would employ her, she said, because her visa was never valid for more than a few months – until her next court date. If she wanted a job, an employer told her, she would need to abandon her asylum claim in the US and apply for asylum in Mexico instead.
Lack of Access to Financial Services
Nine people said they could not work because employers required them to open a bank account to receive their salary, but they could not do so without the kind of visa that comes with a photo ID card issued by the Mexican government. Others said employees at banks or international money transfer services refused to accept Venezuelan passports as valid IDs.
After repeated rejections by employers who indicated they were unwilling to hire anyone in the Remain in Mexico program, Diego said he found a willing company. But when a bank rejected his paper visa form as proof of residency and refused him an account to receive his salary, the company rescinded the job offer.
Patricia, who has been in the program since June 2019, does not work because she is afraid to leave her 3-year-old daughter alone. She relies instead on money transfers from her husband. She tried to open a bank account to receive the transfers, she said, but bank employees required a residence visa with a photo ID card, which she did not have. Patricia has had to ask people she met in Mexico to receive the transfers for her.
Nathaly and her three children – 10, 4, and 3 – have been waiting in Mexico since August 2019. “We’ve spent the whole time locked inside,” she said. Even before the pandemic, she had not enrolled the children in school because it would “put them at risk” of kidnapping or trafficking. She has not looked for work because she is afraid to leave her children alone. “Even if we got sick, I would think twice before going out,” she said.
Sofia, who has been waiting in Mexico since February 2020, has not sought medical treatment for a lump in her breast because she and her husband, Hernán, are afraid to leave their apartment. Fear of being recognized as foreigners and targeted by those who suspect that they have money – or that they have relatives abroad with money – has also kept them from seeking jobs.
Human Rights Watch requested information from the Mexican secretaries of health, education, labor, and foreign relations. The Health Secretary responded, saying that authorities in Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila have made efforts to provide information about access to health care to those in Remain in Mexico and that non-Mexicans in those states received medical attention at least 157,000 times in 2019 and 2020. The other officials did not respond.
To the US government:
- End disproportionate and harmful expulsions of asylum seekers on public health grounds.
- Allow asylum seekers whose cases were terminated under Remain in Mexico to re-apply for US asylum.
- Instruct Customs and Border Patrol to give fair consideration of requests at ports of entry for humanitarian parole, which allows people to enter the United States temporarily on humanitarian grounds.
To the Mexican government:
- Refuse to accept further expulsions from the US of asylum seekers.
- Take steps to ensure that crimes against migrants are investigated and brought to justice, including:
- Instructing police and prosecutors to allow anyone to report a crime regardless of migratory status, as is required by Mexican and international law.
- Ordering independent and transparent investigations into allegations that police officers and immigration agents have been involved in or responsible for crimes against migrants.
- Ensure that migrants who are victims of crimes are informed of their rights, including the right to request a humanitarian visa under Mexican law.
Until those in the Remain in Mexico program are allowed to enter the US, the Mexican government should:
- Issue them humanitarian visas or other temporary residency visas with photo ID cards.
- Ensure that they receive a national ID number (CURP), a social security number, and a tax ID (RFC) valid for the entire duration of their stay in Mexico.
- Ensure that they receive information on their rights, including how to work legally and access public health care and education. This should include an explanation of:
- Which documents are required to work and how to obtain them;
- Which types of public health services, including sexual and reproductive health services, are available to people in the program and how to use them;
- How to enroll children in public schools; and
- What to do if someone is denied access to public services.
- Ensure that public officials, including police, health workers, and administrators in public schools, understand that asylum seekers in the program are in Mexico legally and have a right to access public services.
Correction: The report incorrectly stated that the US has expelled "more than 400,000 migrants" since March 2020. It was corrected to clarify that the US has expelled migrants "more than 400,000 times" since March 2020, meaning that the number of individual migrants expelled may be greater than 400,000.