Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has made clear that he intends to continue leaning heavily on Mexico to prevent migrants from traveling to the US southern border. Former president Donald Trump pushed this policy farther than ever before, resulting in horrific abuses as Mexico responded to the pressure by bolstering its detention and deportation machinery. Biden should not follow in Trump’s footsteps.
If he intends to partner with Mexico on immigration, Biden should work to enhance Mexico’s capacity to protect refugees and to provide humane alternatives for all migrants.
Over the past four months, President Biden has pushed Mexico to redouble its immigration enforcement efforts. The Mexican government has deployed thousands of additional immigration agents and ten thousand Mexican soldiers to detain undocumented migrants. And the Biden administration continues to expel thousands of migrants to Mexico every day without full due process. Meanwhile, Mexican immigration agents detain and deport thousands of migrants every month—mostly Central Americans, many of whom are headed to the US. In fact, Mexico deports more Central Americans every year than the US.
People held in Mexico’s immigration detention facilities have described appalling conditions. Men, women, and children have been found held together in cramped spaces without running water, electricity, or natural light. In such conditions, where it is impossible to comply with social distancing or hygiene recommendations, Covid-19 can quickly spread.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, local and international human rights authorities have urged governments, including Mexico, to protect detained migrants from Covid-19 and to establish alternatives to detention to avoid risk of illness. Mexican judges have issued multiple court orders to release vulnerable migrants and to put in place measures to detect and prevent cases of Covid-19 in detention centers, such as providing access to testing and personal protective equipment like face masks.
Mexican immigration authorities have responded with vague statements about taking “sanitary actions,” feigned compliance with court orders by temporarily emptying detention centers, and claimed not to have registered “a single case of Covid-19” among detained migrants. But they have provided no concrete evidence that they are taking real steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in detention centers.
Mexico has been hit badly by the Covid-19 pandemic with one of the world’s highest recorded death tolls. It is difficult to believe that its immigration detention facilities would be free from Covid-19. And the limited available information indicates that’s not the case.
In November, Mexican journalists discovered through freedom of information requests that authorities had only conducted 78 Covid-19 tests for the more than 40,000 migrants detained since the start of the pandemic. Nearly all the tests were positive, even though the authorities had claimed there were no cases of Covid-19 in immigration detention facilities.
Since the pandemic began, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has conducted surprise visits to six detention centers. The inspectors discovered that a Salvadoran man who spent nearly two months in detention died of Covid-19 and that officials failed to provide him with adequate medical care. Staff members told them about suspected and confirmed cases at a time when the authorities claimed there were none.
The commission also found unaccompanied minors, pregnant and nursing women, families with children, and individual men and women, all held together in detention centers and on buses—despite a Mexican law prohibiting holding children in immigration detention centers—without electricity, running water, or medical care. The commission reported instances of detainees who had tested positive for Covid held in the same room as detainees with no symptoms.
They found that the immigration agents failed to provide detainees and staff with basic personal protective equipment like face masks or hand sanitizer or soap. They found that staff were given broken thermometers to conduct health checks. And again and again, they found overcrowded detention facilities where it was impossible to follow social distancing.
These abuses may be happening in Mexico, but the United States shares responsibility. While supporting capacity-building in Mexico for fair and accessible asylum procedures and humane reception of migrants, President Biden should push Mexican immigration enforcement authorities to take some basic but crucial steps to protect migrants from Covid-19.
The United States should stand by the principle that migrants should not be detained except as a necessary and proportional measure of last resort. When immigration detention is necessary, detained migrants should be held in clean and humane conditions with access to running water, soap, and face masks. If they feel ill, they should have access to quality medical care. And anyone with a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 should be isolated.
President Biden has promised a new “fair and humane” approach to managing immigration. But US immigration policy will never be “fair and humane” as long as Mexico’s role is relegated to serving as an arm of US immigration enforcement, and the suffering of migrants in Mexican immigration detention centers goes unheeded.