A Salvadoran family stays at the Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in June 2019 while they wait for their asylum cases to be heard in US immigration court. Like the dozens of other families in the shelter, they sleep on mats in between pews in the chapel.  © 2019 AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio

(Washington, DC) – A United States government program exposes children, as well as their parents, seeking asylum to serious risk of assault, mistreatment, and trauma while waiting for their cases to be heard, Human Rights Watch said today in a joint investigation report.

Human Rights Watch, working with Stanford University’s Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program and Willamette University’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic, found that the US Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, commonly known as “Remain in Mexico,” compelled families with children to wait in unsafe environments in Mexico for many months. Parents said that prolonged immigration court proceedings, fear of being incarcerated, and uncertainty about the future took a toll on their family’s health, safety, and well-being. Many described changes in their children’s behavior, saying they became more anxious or depressed after US authorities sent them to Mexico to await their hearings.

“The conditions, threats to safety, and sense of uncertainty asylum seekers face while waiting in Mexico creates chronic and severe psychological stress for children and families,” said Dr. Ryan Matlow, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “We know that these forms of pervasive, unresolved complex trauma can lead to significant long-term negative consequences for child development and family functioning.”

Human Rights Watch and other investigators interviewed parents and children from 60 families seeking asylum between November 2019 and January 2020. Most families were from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, with a few from Cuba, Ecuador, and Peru. The investigators also spoke with lawyers, doctors, shelter providers, faith leaders, and Mexican officials.

Under the Migrant Protection Protocols, US immigration officials have required most Spanish-speaking asylum seekers who arrive in the US through Mexico to go to Mexico while their cases are heard. Parents said that while waiting in Mexico, they or their children were beaten, harassed, sexually assaulted, or abducted. Some said Mexican police had harassed or extorted money from them. Most said they were constantly fearful and easily identified as targets for violence.

US Department of Homeland Security guidance suggests that certain particularly vulnerable groups should not be placed in the program, but the guidance is vague and immigration agents interpret it variably. US Customs and Border Protection officials regularly return to Mexico families with infants and toddlers; indigenous families and Brazilians whose first language is not Spanish; and children and adults with serious health conditions.

Asylum hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols raise various due process concerns, Human Rights Watch said. To get to court hearings in the United States, families must report to a designated border crossing point, which sometimes requires them to arrive as early as 3 a.m. in unsafe locations. Those sent to Mexicali or Piedras Negras must make journeys of 160 to 550 kilometers (100 to 340 miles) to reach their designated border crossing point.

All family members, including young children, must appear, and sit quietly for each court hearing. Families interviewed said that they were frequently required to wait for hours for a brief hearing, and agents have told parents they risked being sent back to Mexico without seeing a judge if their children made noise or could not sit still.

Families said that after each hearing, they were locked up in very cold, often overcrowded immigration holding cells, with men and teenage boys held separately, sometimes overnight or longer, before US officials returned them to Mexico. Some said they were considering abandoning their asylum cases because their children were afraid of being detained again.

A 27-year-old woman from Honduras described being detained in an El Paso holding cell with her daughter. “I asked for a blanket for the girl. They said no,” she said, saying that the guard did not give a reason.

Guards separate older boys under age 18 from their mothers and younger siblings, placing them with unrelated adults. A woman from Cuba said her 13-year-old son’s separation “had a traumatic effect on him.” Another described the effect of family separation on the boys he saw in his cell after his hearing: “It’s very inhumane. The guards don’t treat these boys like children, they treat them like adults. It’s illogical.”

“Locking families up in frigid, overcrowded cells and separating boys from their mothers is traumatizing,” said Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior children’s rights counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The US government should never inflict cruelty on children, especially not as the price of getting their day in court.”

All governments are obligated to respect the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement – the prohibition on returning a person to a country where they are at risk of persecution, torture, or other cruel or inhuman treatment. Governments are also obligated to extend specific protections to children, whether traveling alone or with families, including by giving primary consideration to their best interests.

The US government should immediately terminate the MPP program and cease all returns of non-Mexican asylum seekers to Mexico. Instead, it should revert to the global norm of allowing asylum seekers to remain in the country where their claims are heard. The government should safeguard asylum seekers’ right to a fair and timely hearing by establishing an adequately resourced, independent immigration court system with court-appointed legal representation for asylum seekers who are members of particularly vulnerable groups.

“‘Remain in Mexico’ is putting at risk families who are already facing desperate situations,” said Dr. Nancy Wang, professor of emergency medicine at Stanford University Medical Center. “It’s inexcusable for the US government to subject children and families to crowded, unsanitary, insecure conditions with inadequate protection from infectious diseases – whether in US immigration detention or in overstretched shelters in Mexico.”

For additional information on the findings, please see below.

Migrant Protection Protocols Program

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began implementing the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico,” on January 29, 2019. Under the program, US immigration officers send most people seeking asylum who have entered the United States by land from Mexico to Mexican border towns while their cases are pending before US immigration courts. As of December, US officials sent more than 59,000 people to Mexico under the program, including at least 16,000 children.

Under the program, families with children are sent to Mexico regardless of the children’s ages. DHS has stated that people “in special circumstances,” including those with “[k]nown physical/mental health issues,” will not be placed in the program, but US immigration officials apply the DHS guidance inconsistently, with reports that people who are critically ill, pregnant, or living with disabilities have been sent to Mexico to await their asylum hearings. According to DHS guidelines, unaccompanied children should not be placed in the program. The program applied only to asylum seekers from Spanish-speaking countries other than Mexico, but DHS announced that beginning January 29, 2020, it had begun requiring Portuguese-speaking Brazilians who are seeking asylum to remain in Mexico.

In the year since the program began, US officials have sent children in families seeking asylum to Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo, Piedras Negras, and Tijuana, and, as of January 2, to Nogales.

Sent to Danger

Asylum seekers interviewed said they or their children had been violently attacked, robbed at knifepoint, or extorted in Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo, and Tijuana while transiting through these cities before they sought asylum, or after US officials sent them to those cities. Three families said they had been abducted for ransom, in Nuevo Laredo; one family for eight days. Four families said their children had been sexually assaulted after US officials sent them to Mexico.

Two women said they were raped after being sent to Mexico, including one who was abducted and raped the day US officials sent her to Mexico. Two families said they were abducted and held for ransom almost immediately after arriving. Another woman described being robbed by armed men as she crossed into Mexico from the United States.

These accounts are in addition to 29 reports of harm to asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez documented by Human Rights Watch in a July 2019 report.

An October 2019 study by the US Immigration Policy Center of the University of California San Diego found that one-quarter of more than 600 asylum seekers returned to Mexicali and Tijuana were threatened with physical violence while they waited in Mexico for their immigration court hearings.

Human Rights First has tracked more than 800 violent attacks on people seeking asylum, including cases of murder, rape, and abduction for ransom, in the year since the program began. That figure includes at least 200 cases of alleged kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of children.

In the current investigation, some families described extortion and other harassment by Mexican police. Edwin F. (all names are pseudonyms), a 28-year-old from Honduras staying in a shelter in Ciudad Juárez with his wife and 5-year-old son, said in January 2020: “Yesterday the police stopped a group of us. They asked all of us where we were from. They searched through our phone history as if we were coming to do harm to the country. They held us close to half an hour while they searched us, even our son. They asked for money. I didn’t have any.” His wife, Marisela, 21, said that when the police officers searched her: “I had some sanitary pads in a shopping bag. They dumped them out on the ground. Everything I had, they dumped out on the ground.” The encounter traumatized their 5-year-old. “He became really anxious,” his father said. “He started to cry uncontrollably.”

Under DHS policy, people seeking asylum should receive an interview with an asylum officer, known as a “credible fear” interview, if they tell immigration agents they fear harm in Mexico. DHS guidance states that “a third-country national should not be involuntarily returned to Mexico . . . if the alien would more likely than not be persecuted. . . or tortured.”

Many families said these interviews were by telephone and not face-to-face. Assessing these interviews, a former asylum officer wrote: “[The MPP] process places on the applicants the highest burden of proof in civil proceedings in the lowest quality hearing available.”

“If you say you’re afraid of going back to Mexico, they put you in a cell in the hielera [the “freezer,” referring to an immigration holding cell],” said Nelly O., a 27-year-old Honduran woman. “You wait for a call. They call this a ‘credible fear’ interview. When the call comes, it could be nighttime. You spend the entire night in the hielera.

The families who spoke to the investigation team said they received an interview, but organizations working in Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana told Human Rights Watch that many asylum seekers had not. “People are now being denied interviews, with no reason given and no documentation of denial,” said Tania Guerrero, an attorney with the Estamos Unidos Asylum Project of CLINIC. She said she had heard of more than 10 such cases in El Paso in a single week in January.

Every family we interviewed said immigration officials did not actively ask them if they feared being sent to Mexico, and DHS guidance does not require them to. “They didn’t really ask us what our case was or why we left our countries,” said Maria Q., a 41-year-old from Honduras, of her hearing in San Diego in October. “They said they couldn’t do anything. They just handed us some papers. They didn’t pay attention to what we needed or what we said.”

Marisela F., a 21-year-old from Honduras, said that at her hearing in El Paso in December with her husband and their 5-year-old son: “The officials didn’t ask about Mexico.” While one of the papers they received before they were sent to Ciudad Juárez stated, “Attached is a credible fear worksheet,” they had no memory of ever receiving such a worksheet and had no copy of one among the papers from their legal proceedings.

Similarly, the US Immigration Policy Center found that more than one-third of people seeking asylum were not asked by US immigration officials if they feared being sent to Mexico. Of those who were asked, nearly 9 out of 10 told immigration agents they feared harm if returned to Mexico; nearly 60 percent of them were not given a secondary interview to explain their fears.

Families returned to Mexico despite their expressed fears of harm said they were afraid to request interviews during subsequent court hearings. They said their initial experience suggested that they would not be believed and that requesting an interview would only mean more time detained. Julián M., a 28-year-old Honduran man, said that the second time he and his family went for their court hearing, they decided not to ask for a call to explain their fear of returning to Mexico. “If we did, we would have to wait another night in the cell,” he said.

Ordeal Getting to Immigration Court

Asylum seekers sent to Mexicali must find transportation to Tijuana, 180 kilometers (110 miles) west, to report at the border for immigration court hearings in San Diego. Families sent to Piedras Negras must travel an equivalent distance to Laredo for hearings.

“From Mexicali, we had to make our way here [to Tijuana],” Maria Q. said. “The immigration agents didn’t give us any directions. They didn’t tell us where there were shelters.”

Children and families sent to Nogales will have to make their way to Ciudad Juárez, a 550-kilometer (340-mile), seven-and-a-half-hour journey by the most direct route through Mexico, for hearings.

If children and families cannot or do not make the long, potentially dangerous journey, an immigration judge can reject their asylum claim and in their absence order them deported.

Families said that immigration agents told them they had to arrive at the border crossings between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. for hearings beginning at 8 a.m.

Families in Tijuana said that because of the difficulty and danger of traveling from their shelters in the middle of the night, especially with children, they stayed in hotel rooms if they could afford to. Many, including young women with toddlers, said they did not have the money and spent the night on the street outside the border crossing. Some families described concerns about being stalked or profiled while looking for hotels or waiting in the street and feared that they could be extorted or kidnapped.

Once allowed to enter US territory, families undergo health screenings, including lice checks, then are transported to the immigration court. If all family members do not pass the health screening, including the lice checks, the family is rescheduled for another hearing, often a month or more later.

“We wait in a hallway, seated in chairs,” said Nuria J. “The kids are right there with us. There’s nowhere else for them. They can’t play. The guards don’t permit them to move around. They reprimand you if the kids get out of the chairs. You sit all day. It’s a long time.” Another woman said: “If you have a baby and you need to change your baby’s diapers, they’ll give you a diaper. But there’s no place to go. You have to change your baby on the floor, right there in the hallway.”

Blanca M., 31, attended her first immigration court hearing in August with her husband and their three daughters, all under age 5. “We had nothing to eat from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” she said. “The officials wanted us to keep the kids quiet. Really I was at the point of giving up.” Her husband added: “One guard kept saying, ‘Those of you with children, control them. If your children are fucking around, I can take away your court hearing.’ It’s almost impossible to get a 1-year-old to stay seated in a chair.” They said the same thing happened inside the courtroom.

Some families said they were thinking of abandoning their asylum claims because the process was so traumatic for their children.

A Bewildering Process and Little Access to Counsel

Families interviewed in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana described a chaotic, confusing process once they saw an immigration judge.

Most expected that they would be able to explain their situation to a judge immediately, but the first hearing, a “master calendar” hearing, is a brief session to handle preliminary matters and set a date for a longer individual hearing. Asylum seekers who need more time to prepare or to seek legal representation are often rescheduled for an additional master calendar hearing. Some families said they had three brief master calendar hearings. Most we spoke to said they were sent to Mexico after each hearing with very little understanding of what had happened and what they needed to do to pursue their claims.

Most papers they received were in English. They must submit their asylum applications in English, with all supporting documentation translated into English.

Associated Press reporters who visited immigration courts in 11 cities, including El Paso and San Diego, described what they saw as “nonstop chaos” – overcrowded courtrooms, evidence misplaced in stacks of paper files, and hearings without interpreters, among other shortcomings.

People seeking asylum in the United States are not guaranteed legal representation. Instead, US law states that they have the “privilege of being represented (at no expense to the government).” Pro bono or low-cost legal representation is difficult to find even for those inside the country. For the tens of thousands of families sent to Mexico, obtaining counsel is nearly impossible – with nowhere near enough pro bono lawyers to meet the need. Only 14 of the 1,155 cases decided in the program’s first five months, 1.2 percent, had legal representation.

Immigration officials provided a woman who attended a hearing in Laredo a list of legal service providers – showing lawyers in Dallas, 700 kilometers (430 miles) away.

Some asylum seekers alleged that abuses by US immigration agents directly affected their ability to present their claims. Nicola A. said a uniformed US border agent tore up the documents corroborating her account of persecution in her home country. She now fears that she will not have sufficient proof to support her asylum claim.

Detention in Frigid US Immigration Holding Cells

Most of the families interviewed said that they spent at least one night and sometimes more after their court hearing in the immigration holding cells known as the hieleras.

These holding cells are notoriously cold, with temperatures reaching as low as 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit). People detained in these cell have frequently been subjected to substandard conditions and abusive treatment, as Human Rights Watch and other groups have consistently reported.

“When we entered, the guards turned the air conditioning up,” said Maria Q. “They took away our sweaters and said they would wash them, but they never returned them.”

Wendy G., 32, from Honduras, was held in the hielera with her 12-year-old daughter and 10 and 8-year-old sons in August and again in September after each of her court hearings. “It was really cold both times,” she said. “Some of the guards shouted at us…They would give us food that was still frozen. They told us we risked being locked up more days if we misbehaved.”

Families said immigration holding cells could be very overcrowded, consistent with reports in June by lawyers and the DHS Office of Inspector General. Edwin F. said that after his family’s court hearing in December, “We were held in the [border station] cells…My wife was held with our son, I was in another cell. There were 17 of us in a small space. It was hard to lie down.” Because their court date was on December 23, they stayed in the holding cells for four days, returning to Ciudad Juárez on December 27.

Julián M. said that after he and his family had a court hearing in October, they were held in an El Paso immigration holding cell:

The cell I was in had a capacity of 38. There was a sign. It was in English, but I understood the word “capacity,” and right next to it was the number 38. We all counted ourselves. There were 112 of us in that cell. At first there were 99. Then the guards brought 13 more. The 13 didn’t fit. We were all sleeping on the floor. An official told us to get up so everyone could fit in the cell. He had a stun gun. He threatened us with it, saying, “If you don’t get up, I’ll shoot you with the stun gun.” Of course everyone immediately got up. Nobody slept that night.

Most of the families interviewed said they were detained for one or two days after their hearings, but some families described periods lasting three or four days or longer. Nuria J. said that when she was in the hielera with her son and daughter: “[t]here was one guy, maybe 35 years old, who said he had spent seven days locked up after his court hearing.”

Families in immigration holding cells have no opportunity to bathe. Many described the cells as “dirty” and “filthy.”

Some described significant health concerns in the holding cells. Nicola A., who has public health training, said that while she and her family were in immigration holding cells, “I noticed that there were numerous people carrying lice, as well as people showing signs and symptoms of varicella [chicken pox]. Nonetheless, we were all kept together in the same rooms – these conditions were extremely unsanitary.

Previous reports and inspections of immigration holding cells by government inspectors, Human Rights Watch, and others have also found unsanitary and otherwise substandard conditions, including flu, lice, scabies, shingles, and chicken pox transmission, overcrowding, and inadequate food. A San Antonio-based group of volunteer doctors, nurses, and social workers, Sueños Sin Fronteras, found that new medical conditions arose while in immigration holding cells, including “a lot of boils and skin rashes, attributable to the lack of hygiene, and severe constipation, attributable to the dehydration and poor food intake” and near-universal “complaints of flu symptoms or respiratory problems or both.”

Adverse Consequences for Mental Well-Being

The combined trauma of families’ flights from persecution, and the dangers they faced on their journeys to the United States, and now face in Mexico, have had serious negative effects on their mental well-being.

“The children and families we saw showed incredible strength and resilience,” Dr. Ryan Matlow said. “At the same time, the conditions they face while waiting for their asylum hearings continuously erode the resources and protective influences that would help them maintain their physical and psychological health. Trauma and adversity have a cumulative impact on health, meaning that chronic stress over time, along with repeated exposure to threats increase the prevalence and severity of possibly long-lasting negative physical and mental health outcomes.”

The families interviewed described their despair, hopelessness, anxiety, and deteriorating family relationships. “Families are doing their best to survive and adapt to the circumstances they are placed in, but the sense that they are under chronic threat and danger leads to long-term experiences of anxiety, mistrust, hypervigilance, behavioral reactivity, withdrawal, and fatigue,” Matlow said. He said that children were especially susceptible to trauma, which is associated with learning difficulties, behavior problems, health impairment, and shortened life expectancy.

“It’s hardest on our son,” said Edwin F., choking up as he described the changes in his 5-year-old son during the three months they had been in Mexico. “He isn’t prepared mentally for these things. We’ve seen a change in him… Before he was more easygoing. Now he’s easily bothered, more irritable, gets angry easily. He’s anxious and impulsive now, he doesn’t control himself. He was more well-behaved in Honduras. Now he misbehaves. We’ve seen a complete change in the boy. We didn’t want this life for our son.”

Tania Guerrero, the CLINIC project attorney, said: “The women I speak to tell me, ‘Nobody understands what we’re going through here [in Ciudad Juárez].’ They have been here eight months. They’re exhausted, alone, miserable. They want to get on with their lives. The level of disillusionment and despair they feel is profound.”

Nicola A. said:

We are constantly under stress by our inability to request asylum and find shelter in a safe place. We are afraid and anxious in Mexico, given that our kidnappers are still pursuing us. We are afraid of being separated and detained again in the horrendous conditions in immigration detention… We experience these fears every day. We have ongoing health concerns and we are running out of money to pay for medication and treatment… This entire experience has had a negative impact on our family.

Our son appears traumatized and is more quiet, depressed, and withdrawn than I have ever seen him before. My husband and I are constantly anxious and irritable due to the constant stress. We are desperate, and we are losing hope that we will be able to find safety and refuge from the persecution and victimization that we have experienced. We are starting to believe that there is no safe place where we can go and be accepted.