Every harsh move the Trump administration makes on the southwestern border is designed to deter Central Americans from traveling to the United States. It blocks them at legal ports of entry, holds others in indefinite detention, and has drastically restricted who can even ask for asylum. But there is no evidence that the flow of migrants is slowing in response, nor are these people going home.
Turned-back migrants are piling up in privately operated shelters and makeshift camps in Mexican border cities. Will they be allowed to stay, at least, in Mexico?
Some wait in hope that U.S. authorities will still grant them a “credible fear” interview to determine if they can even ask for asylum. But that’s increasingly unlikely. Last month, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions ruled that U.S. asylum law does not offer protection against domestic abuse, gang crimes or drug-traffic-related violence. Only “public” violence — that is, being victimized directly by your government — qualifies.
This radical reinterpretation excludes, by some lawyers’ estimates, more than 85% of transit migrants — those who have crossed Mexico from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to get to the southwestern U.S. border.
Mexico’s asylum program is straining under the increasing numbers of mostly Central American migrants seeking protection there.
The Trump administration characterizes these transit migrants as disguised economic refugees, but it is impossible to disentangle their economic from their personal safety concerns. Recent field interviews suggest that most are driven to leave by a combination of factors, including gang-related violence and lack of economic opportunities. Some have been personally threatened by gangs; others have relatives who have been harmed; still others, like small business owners, have been targets of gang extortion. Either way, they perceived the risks involved in crossing Mexico to get into the United States as lower than the evident dangers of staying home.
For now, they are bottled up within Mexico. So what will Mexico do?
There’s a good chance that Mexico will deport many of them. Under President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Southern Border Program, enacted in 2014 in response to U.S. pressure, deportations have doubled. By 2015, Mexico was deporting more Central American migrants than the United States, belying President Trump’s claim that Mexico “does nothing” to stop migrants trying to reach the United States.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration pressed the Mexican government to sign a bilateral “safe third country” agreement, under which U.S. officials could turn away most asylum-seekers at the border and compel them to petition for protection in Mexico instead. The negotiations went nowhere, but the Trump administration has essentially enacted this policy unilaterally by disallowing so many asylum claims.
As a result, Mexico’s asylum program is straining under the increasing numbers of mostly Central American migrants seeking protection there. In 2017, 14,596 people applied for asylum in Mexico — an 11-fold increase from 2013. This year, the number of applicants could reach 25,000 or more.
Although it has improved in recent years, Mexico’s asylum program remains understaffed and underfunded, and many transit migrants don’t know they can ask for refuge there. Still, the option of seeking asylum in Mexico will become increasingly attractive — or the only option — given the sharp restriction of the grounds for asylum claims in the United States.
Moreover, those who apply for asylum in Mexico have a greater chance of success. In 2017, 64% of completed cases won protection, up from 37% in 2013. Petitioners may have to wait three or four months to have their cases resolved, but that’s nothing. In the United States, upwards of 715,000 cases are backlogged in the immigration court system. Asylum claims can take six years or more to adjudicate, and approval rates for applicants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are extremely low.
Mexican authorities also have been more humane to asylum applicants, releasing them from detention while their cases are processed. In the U.S.,only after a bruising political fight over separating migrant parents and children has the Trump administration relented. On Tuesday, it said it will release families with ankle bracelet monitoring while their asylum claims are assessed. Most solo asylum-seekers are still being held in immigration prisons.
Some asylum-seekers turned away by U.S. border officials are hiring Mexican coyotes to help them enter the United States clandestinely. But many other migrants who face life-threatening conditions in their home countries may now have no better option than staying put — for as long as possible — in Mexico.
Wayne Cornelius is a faculty teaching fellow at Reed College and director emeritus of the Mexican Migration Field Research Program at UC San Diego.