Last Updated: April 23, 2021
For decades, people have arrived at the southern border seeking protection from persecution or state violence, and for decades we have opened our doors to help those in need. Many seek protection due to persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group. The number of people requesting asylum in the U.S. has fluctuated depending on what’s happening in the world. The most recent increase began in 2015 and 2016, as people fled violence in Central America and elsewhere. Since then, tens of thousands of people — including a growing number of families — have arrived in northern Mexico to seek protection in the United States. In addition, there has been an increasing number of Black immigrants fleeing persecution from African, Caribbean and and other countries who are attempting to reach the United States to seek safety.
Over the past few years, access to protection in the U.S. has remained out of reach for many of those arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, in blatant violation of U.S. law and international obligations. The Trump administration’s interlocking draconian and illegal policies forced tens of thousands of individuals and families seeking safety in the U.S. to spend years waiting in Mexico, where they struggled to access basic services and suffered grave human rights violations.
During his presidential campaign and since taking office, President Joe Biden pledged to rebuild the U.S. asylum system and restore asylum processing at the border. During his first several months as president, he signed executive orders to undo some of Trump’s policies and convened a taskforce to reunite families separated at the border during the prior administration.
Yet, access to protection at the border for those fleeing protection still remains restricted at the border, obscured by the media’s narrative of a “surge” and “crisis.” This narrative ignores the harm caused by expulsions under Title 42 and the pent-up need for asylum processing that has remained at a near total halt as a result of Biden’s unwillingness to date to change some of Trump’s policies.
Title 42 is an archaic statute that allows the government to immediately expel individuals apprehended at the border if there is a public health concern. After the prior administration implemented this policy at the onset of the pandemic, several public health officials objected, saying that asylum seekers could continue to be processed in a way that protected public health. In February, Public health officials also objected to Biden’s continued use of Title 42 to immediately expel people arriving at the border back to Mexico or to their home countries. These expulsions have disproportionately affected Black immigrants — particularly Haitians — as the Biden administration continues to rapidly expel them, including infants, back to extremely dangerous conditions.
The new administration also seemingly conflated the issue of people seeking safety at the U.S.-Mexico border with the resettlement of refugees. After pledging to raise the number of resettled refugees to 62,500, Biden signed a presidential decree in mid-April to keep the all time-low refugee resettlement cap of 15,000 refugees set by the Trump administration. While refugee resettlement and the processing of people seeking safety in the U.S. are two entirely separate processes, administration officials blamed the lower cap on a resource strain due to the increase in families and unaccompanied children arriving at the border—a challenging situation created by the ongoing policies of exclusion. Advocates pushed back and expressed outrage immediately. The administration later backtracked and released a statement that it would reassess the final refugee cap for this year in May.
This section gives an overview of policies towards asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border and conditions for those waiting in Mexico.
Expulsions of Asylum Seekers to Danger
Over the last year, the right for asylum seekers arriving at the border to request protection in the United States––guaranteed by domestic law and our international obligations–– has been effectively suspended. In March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), under the direction of Trump and despite objections by public health officials, issued a 30-day order under Title 42 of the U.S. Code that gave U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers the authority to rapidly expel all migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border––including those seeking asylum–– to dangerous conditions in Mexico or their home countries. This order was later extended indefinitely.
As of March 2021, Customs and Border Protection has carried out 642,700 expulsions under this policy. Approximately 90 percent of people have been returned to Mexico within two hours of the encounter according to a prior CBP commissioner, while others are placed on deportation flights to their home countries.
In general, individuals expelled under Title 42 do not receive a protection screening or the opportunity to request asylum, in violation of U.S. law and the international principle of refoulement that guarantee all individuals who cross the border unauthorized the right to request asylum. Very few exceptions have been made for individuals who qualify for the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Border officials have only permitted 143 asylum seekers screened for protection––a mere 0.3% of those expelled–– to request refuge.
As noted above, these expulsions have continued during the Biden administration, which has so far left this Trump-era public health order in place, with the exception of not expelling unaccompanied children. The administration has said it will continue to expel migrants, including asylum seekers, under Title 42, while it builds a humane asylum processing system. However, these Title 42 expulsions continue to be devastating to asylum seekers who face danger in Mexico and other countries of origin, including Black immigrants and families. Human Rights First has tracked nearly 500 attacks and kidnappings of asylum seekers who have been stranded in Mexico or expelled there during Biden’s first few months in office.
It has been abundantly clear that political interests in cutting off access to asylum––not public health protocols–– have driven the use of Title 42. Well before the pandemic, Trump’s chief immigration advisor Stephan Miller repeatedly tried to use Title 42 to circumvent U.S. and international protection obligations in order to turn away asylum seekers at the border. Reports suggest that CDC scientists opposed the implementation of Title 42, but eventually succumbed to immense pressure from the Trump administration.
The CDC order’s stated goal was to protect CBP officers from COVID-19 exposure and to reduce the congregation of individuals, in settings such as immigration detention centers. However, over the past year, hundreds of public health experts have objected to the use of Title 42, claiming that there is no public health rationale to close our borders to asylum seekers while keeping them open to millions of other border crossers, including students, professionals and tourists. Public experts recommend that DHS implement measures such as masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, while ramping up testing and quarantine capacity at Border Patrol stations and ports of entry.
Black immigrants –– in particular from Haiti –– have been rapidly expelled to Mexico where they face anti-Black discrimination and violence, and have been targeted by local authorities. In addition, so far this year, over 1,400 Haitians were sent on 27 ICE deportation flights to Haiti, despite the fact that the country is undergoing a political uprising and immense instability. Advocates have called on Biden to halt deportation flights to Haiti and to fulfill his campaign promise to redesignate Temporary Protected Status to Haitians so they can remain in safety within the U.S.
Expulsions have also affected children arriving at the border alone. Under Title 42, the Trump administration expelled over 13,000 unaccompanied children, while the Biden administration decided to halt expulsions of unaccompanied minors. In the past few months, there has been an increase in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving at our borders –– 9,431 in February and 18,890 in March 2021. The Biden administration has struggled to provide the growing number of arriving unaccompanied minors with adequate shelter and care.
In addition, an increasing number of families have crossed the border in the last few months, following a lull last year due to the pandemic and worsening conditions in countries of origin due to the pandemic and natural disasters. However, the Biden administration has used Title 42 to continue to expel families with children seeking protection to dangerous conditions in Mexico. The danger has forced many parents to make the heart wrenching decision to send their children to cross alone to safety in the U.S.
Yet, Mexico also has said it doesn’t have enough capacity to accept all the families expelled at the border. This has led CBP to accept some of the families into the U.S. to await their asylum proceedings, and to send some families on daily lateral flights from south Texas to other parts of the border where they are expelled to Mexico. These mass expulsions have been challenging for shelters and community organizations on the Mexican side of the border, especially in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, with insufficient resources or government support.
Unwinding Trump’s Remain in Mexico Program
Over the past few months, the Biden administration has taken some steps to reverse Trump administration’s extraordinary moves to severely limit asylum and deny international protection to people fleeing persecution. On his first day in office, Biden suspended new registrations to the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — also known as Remain in Mexico — which forced over 70,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases were adjudicated in U.S. immigration courts. These asylum seekers faced severe security concerns, human rights abuses, poor living conditions, and limited access to legal counsel during the many months and in some cases years they spent in Mexican border cities.
In February, the administration announced phase one of the process to unwind the MPP program, including steps to allow asylum seekers waiting in Mexico in MPP with active immigration cases to be processed into the United States in small groups every day. Currently, a total of 26,432 asylum seekers with active cases at immigration courts along the U.S.-Mexico border are eligible for phase one of the MPP wind down.
The administration has worked in collaboration with the United Nations agencies and regional welcoming task forces across the border to so far welcome over 8,000 asylum seekers who were in the MPP program into the United States for the duration of their asylum cases. The administration has yet to announce future phases of the wind down, including the eligible populations.
The majority of asylum seekers who were placed in MPP hailed from Central American countries.The largest population of asylum seekers were from Honduras (23,051). Similarly, a large number of Guatemalan (15,802), Cuban (11,478), and Salvadoran (8,120). While most asylum seekers in MPP spoke Spanish, some spoke other languages. Over 600 Brazilians were placed in MPP. In addition, a survey carried out by the UC San Diego U.S. Immigration Policy Center found that 13 percent of individuals in MPP that it surveyed spoke a Central American indigenous language as their primary language.
Using data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) project at Syracuse University, we mapped out the locations where asylum seekers have been waiting in Mexico. The largest caseload was the MPP court in El Paso, Texas where nearly 23,000 people were scheduled. Some 16,500 asylum seekers enrolled in MPP were scheduled for court in Brownsville, TX — across from Matamoros, previously home to the largest refugee camp on the border.
The processing of individuals in MPP into the U.S. will likely make it easier to access legal support and win their cases. For asylum seekers forced into the MPP program, it has been very difficult to secure a lawyer from Mexico and only 7% had representation. Instead, in almost all cases (93%), the claimant is not represented. TRAC previously found that asylum seekers with legal counsel are five times more likely to win their cases. This helps explain why the probability that an asylum seeker that was forced to remain in Mexico is so low with a 1-in-100 chance of winning.
Reuniting Families Separated at the Border by Trump
In early February, President Biden signed an executive order to create a multi-agency task force to investigate the Trump administration’s family separation policy. The task force has been working on the logistics in order to reunite children and parents who remain separated.
Thousands of children were ripped from their parent’s arms during the Trump administration -- endangering the children’s welfare and causing untold damage. This move was designed to act as punishment and deterrent for the growing number of asylum seekers that were showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border. The forced separations violated basic human rights and according to doctors, inflicted severe trauma and caused symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental health issues on the families and children affected. These separations have also been considered a form of torture because they were designed to intentionally cause severe pain and suffering.
The Trump administration began its policy of separating children from their families after adopting the draconian ‘zero tolerance’ policy in 2018, which ordered criminal prosecution of anyone who crossed a border without proper authorization (although a government report revealed that family separations began as early as 2017 in some parts of the border). This included families seeking asylum, who too often were forced to cross between ports of entry due to policies that made it extremely difficult or even impossible to seek asylum at an official port of entry.
As a result of this cruel policy, more than 5,500 children were separated from their parents between 2017 and 2019. This figure is an undercount, however, of the total number of families torn apart, as it only includes parent-children relationships. Uncles, grandparents, or older siblings - who often act as the parents of these children - are not included in these government statistics.
Many families have since been reunited, but as of October 2020, the families of at least 545 children cannot be found by the government. This is largely due to the fact that CBP kept such poor records - or intentionally deleted them - that it made reunification almost impossible. A federal judge ordered an end to the cruel family separations at the border, and mandated that children be reunited with their families.
Public data on children who suffered a separation is limited. Available data shows, however, that a significant share (41%) of kids separated were under 10 years old when they were taken from their parents. A majority (56%), were 10 years old or older. The Texas Civil Rights Project published in October 2020, a case study of family separations in South Texas since June 2018. Their analysis of separations in the McAllen federal courthouse found that separations had continued, and the number of children separated may be larger when considering other relationships outside of the parent-child relationship.
The TCRP study — which includes separations from an adult that may be an aunt or uncle, cousin or other non-parent relationship — identified at least 939 separations in McAllen alone. Some 38% of these separations were from a parent, but at least a quarter were from an adult sibling, 19% from an aunt or uncle, and one-in-ten (8%) were from a cousin. About four-in-ten (42%) of the separations were of kids ages 13 to 17. Some 8% of the separations were of children younger than 2 years old.
On average, TCRP found that kids in McAllen were held in custody for an average 2.3 months. And based on a smaller subset of those cases, they found that in a majority of cases (55%), the accompanying adult had been deported from the U.S. In 2% of cases, a child was deported alone, and 15% of the time both the adult and child were deported together. Roughly three-in-ten (28%) children were released into the U.S. with their accompanying adult.
Excruciating Wait Times
The asylum process in the United States is slow. A case could take months or years to be resolved, depending on a variety of factors, putting the life of many asylum-seekers at risk. Policy changes implemented by the Trump administration, such as Remain in Mexico and metering, slowed the process even further before bringing it to a halt. The Remain in Mexico program returned thousands of asylum seekers to danger in Mexico to wait for their U.S. asylum hearings. The MPP program was first implemented in January 2019 and was slowly rolled out to several border sectors, and some asylum seekers in MPP waited for nearly two years for their asylum hearing. The Biden administration began to wind down the MPP program in February 2021, ending asylum seekers’ wait in Mexico, yet it has yet to resume asylum processing at ports of entry.
The Trump administration had previously restricted asylum processing at the border through other measures besides MPP. Metering — which artificially restricted the number of people who could request asylum at a port of entry each day — kept out thousands of other people seeking refuge. This policy resulted in the emergence of informal asylum waiting lists at border cities, where names were tallied to keep order of who could go and request asylum each day. In some cities, the lists were administered by Mexican officials, while in others they have been handled by volunteers. According to a recent report by the Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin, there were still over 16,000 asylum seekers across eleven Mexican cities as of November 2021 on these waiting lists.
The longest waitlist of asylum seekers is in Tijuana where almost 10,000 names remain. According to the report, the waitlist in Tijuana is ‘closed,’ meaning that new names have not been added to the list since March 2020.
Significant numbers of asylum seekers are similarly on waiting lists in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora; Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila; Nogales, Sonora and Agua Prieta, Sonora. Across these cities, some waiting lists remain open, while others have paused as long as asylum processing remains halted. The researchers note that the actual number of asylum seekers waiting in each city could be lower -- as some may have left to return home, moved to another city, or moved and plan to return after COVID-19 concerns lessen.
Forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico longer and longer puts them in greater risk. Border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, for example, have been consistently ranked as some of the most violent cities in the world. Reports of violence against asylum seekers and migrants in Mexico are common. And for many, access to safety and shelter are not guaranteed, making their time in Mexico more risky.
Assaults on Migrants in Mexico
From January 2019 to January 2021, the Trump administration systematically denied asylum protections to people fleeing danger and instead forced them to wait in Mexico for their case to be adjudicated. The Remain in Mexico Policy — formally known as the Migration Protection Protocols — forced tens of thousands of vulnerable people to remain in some of the most dangerous parts of Mexico.
As of February 2021, Human Rights First has documented at least 1,544 of abuses against migrants under this program. Cases of torture, sexual assault, extortion, and other forms of egregious violence are common among asylum seekers in Northern Mexico. The data, which are collected from public reports, is likely underreporting the magnitude of assaults, threats, and other forms of violence as many cases are never reported.
Kidnappings of migrants and asylees in Mexico are the most common form of violence reported (60%). In many cases, cartels and other crime groups prey on asylees who are easily identifiable. Some 15% of all cases reported so far are for assaults, followed by robberies (9%), rape and sexual assault (9%), threats and extortion (4%), and harassment from police (1%).
In one harrowing case, a man who repeatedly told U.S. officials he did not feel safe in Mexico was murdered in Tijuana.
The largest number of crimes against migrants in Mexico were reported in the city of Nuevo Laredo. Since the start of the MPP program in 2019, almost 100 reports of threats, extortions, kidnappings, and other forms of violence have been publicly lodged so far. The reports include cases of kidnappings, threats, rapes, and other forms of extreme violence against asylum seekers. The cities of Matamoros and Reynosa — both bordering the state of Texas — also saw large numbers of reports against migrants and asylees.
In Ciudad Juárez, at least 80 reports have been identified by researchers. Ciudad Juárez is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and has the largest population of asylum seekers waiting for their cases to be adjudicated. As of August 2020, almost 20,000 asylum seekers were forced to remain in the city.
Survey data of asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez verify the high level of violent and criminal incidents against this population. The survey indicated that asylum seekers in MPP living in Ciudad Juárez were most likely to report cases of theft (34%), followed by ‘other’ (28%) crimes — which include instances of sexual assault, attempted kidnapping, or extortions. Two-in-ten (19%) respondents reported being victims of kidnappings, and 18% facing threats.
A vast majority (84%) of asylum seekers that were victims of a crime in Ciudad Juárez did not report it. When asked why they did not report it, about half (47%) said it was because of fear. The second-most common response was due to a crime involving a police officer or authority (18%), followed by people saying they did not know where to report it (17%).
In Tijuana, bordering San Diego, at least 17 reports have been filed detailing crimes against asylum seekers. A 2019 study by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center of asylum seekers forced into the MPP program in Tijuana and Mexicali found that experiences with violence and fear were widespread. Some quarter of interviewees reported having been threatened with physical violence while in Mexico, and one third experienced some form of homelessness while in Mexico.