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Implications of US Mexico agreement to deal with migrants at border

As part of the June 7 agreement, the US and Mexican governments announced that they would “immediately expand” the program the Trump administration has termed “Migrant Protection Protocols.”

Under the program, informally known as “Remain in Mexico,” migrants who present themselves at official ports of entry, or who are apprehended between the ports of entry and seek asylum in the United States, may be returned to Mexico while they await the adjudication of their asylum cases in US immigration courts. To date, CBP has only returned asylum seekers to three ports of entry: Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Mexicali.

Since the launch of the program on January 25, 2019, more than 11,000 migrants seeking asylum in the United States have been returned to Mexico. US officials state that with the expansion, they expect to return an additional 1,000 asylum seekers per day.

At that rate, it would take just over three months to send 100,000 migrants—essentially, homeless, unemployed, vulnerable people, including some non-Spanish speakers—into Mexico’s beleaguered border towns.

Such numbers would utterly overwhelm those border towns, which are already under extreme strain due to resource shortages, security crises, and the “metering system” implemented by US border officials that has drastically limited the number of asylum seekers permitted to access the US ports of entry each day.

That system is currently forcing about 19,000 asylum-seekers to wait weeks or months on the Mexican side of the border for an appointment with US officials.

Local migrant shelters run by private, usually church-based charities are currently housing double, sometimes triple, the number of migrants their facilities are built to support. Add 1,000 more per day, and the unconscionable spectacle of refugee encampments in Mexican border cities cannot be far off.

To avoid this, the Mexican government would need to quickly provide services to these areas and develop procedures for transferring returned asylum seekers away from the border to other parts of Mexico.

As part of the discussions between the United States and Mexico, the Mexican government agreed to “offer jobs, healthcare, and education” to returned migrants; however, Mexican governors in northern border states have reported that they have yet to receive any information about how the program would be rolled out in their states, or what kind of assistance they would receive.

Additionally, an often overlooked reality is that the United States deports thousands of Mexican migrants to these border towns every month. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deported 68,808 Mexicans in just the first four months of 2019. In 2018, 206,669 Mexicans were deported, a 22% increase from 2017.

The majority of shelters on the Mexican side of the border were originally established to provide services to Mexican deportees, including individuals who haven’t been in Mexico in years and who have left their entire family behind in the United States.

Now, civil society organizations and the Mexican government are struggling to not only provide this population with the documentation and support needed to resettle in Mexico, but also to support the tens of thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers who are stuck at the border.

Moreover, there are serious concerns about the safety of asylum seekers returned to Mexico. Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez—where CBP has returned the majority of migrants as part of the Remain in Mexico program—were the two cities with the highest homicide rates in Mexico for 2018.

Currently, the US State Department has travel warnings issued for all six of Mexico’s northern border states, urging citizens not to travel to Tamaulipas, to reconsider travel to Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Sonora, and to exercise increased caution in Baja California, all due to high levels of violent crime and gang activity.

As WOLA and 60 other US, Mexican, and Central American organizations highlighted in a February 2019 letter to then Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen on the Remain in Mexico program, “civil society organizations and migrant shelters have documented multiple cases of torture, murder, disappearances, kidnappings, robbery, extortion, and sexual and gender-based violence that migrants and asylum seekers suffer at the hands of criminal groups in Mexico,” including in Mexican border towns.

These crimes are often committed in collusion with corrupt Mexican officials and almost always go unpunished.

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