Asylum Seekers at the Border

Last Updated: January 19, 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 seeking refugee status in the U.S. began increasing in 2015 and 2016, as more and more people continued fleeing 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 refugee status. In addition, over the last year, there has been an increasing number of Black immigrants fleeing persecution from African, Caribbean and other countries who are seeking international protections and are attempting to reach the United States. A mix of draconian and illegal policies from the Trump administration have forced most to wait in Mexico. And starting in the spring of 2020, the Trump administration has essentially halted the asylum process while citing public-health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Demographics of Asylees

The Trump administration has taken extraordinary moves to severely limit asylum and deny international protection to people fleeing persecution. First, the administration forced people to wait longer through its policy of ‘metering’ - which artificially limited the number of people who could formally request asylum at U.S. ports of entry each day. Then in January 2019 it implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) -- also known as the Remain in Mexico program-- which forces asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their case is adjudicated in a U.S. immigration court. As of December 2020, an estimated 70,000 asylum seekers had been returned to Mexico to wait for their day in court.

While asylees are forced to remain in Mexico, their cases are adjudicated in a U.S. court. Using data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) project at Syracuse University, we are able to map out the locations where these hearings are held. This serves as a proxy location for where asylees are forced to stay in Mexico. The largest caseload is in the MPP court in El Paso, Texas where about 23,000 people are scheduled. Some 16,000 asylum seekers enrolled in MPP and are scheduled for court in Brownsville, TX — across from Matamoros, home to the largest refugee camp on the border.

People from every corner of the globe make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border to try to seek asylum — but by and large, the largest flows come from the Northern Triangle region in Central America. As of the end of December 2020, the largest population of asylum seekers in the MPP program were from Honduras (23,052). Similarly, a large number of Guatemalan (15,799), Cuban (11,175), and Salvadoran (8,120) asylum seekers have been forced to remain in Mexico while they wait to have their asylum claim heard. Mexican asylum seekers are supposed to be excluded from the program, but data shows that a small number of them have been forced to stay in Mexico — a clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement.

Comprehensive, border-wide data on asylum seekers in Mexico is limited. However, numerous NGOs, international organizations, Mexican agencies, and universities have conducted surveys and interviews at different cities which allow us to paint a picture of the demographics of the people waiting their turn for international protection. In this section, we use the latest data from a survey of asylum seekers in Ciudad Juarez conducted at the beginning of 2020 to paint a demographic portrait of asylum seekers in Mexico. This survey was scientifically conducted and is representative of MPP asylum seekers in Ciudad Juarez, where the largest number of asylees in MPP reside. It may be that the population of asylum seekers could differ in important ways in different Mexican cities. However, these data are the most recent and comprehensive available and serve to draw a demographic picture of this population.

A majority of asylum seekers (62%) in Ciudad Juarez are younger than 35 years old. A quarter (25%) are between the ages of 36 and 45, and about 12% are older than 46. In terms of education, there is roughly an equal distribution of degree attainment. Some 27% of asylees in Ciudad Juarez have an elementary education or less, 22% have at least a middle-school or secondary education, 27% have completed high school or an equivalent degree, and 24% have some form of advanced degree (including a university degree or above). More than half (58%) of asylees have a passport with them, a third (34%) have a form of ID, and 4% have no identification with them.

Asylum seekers are put in dire and vulnerable situations when forced to stay in Mexico. Many face repeated acts of violence, housing insecurity, and limited access to basic necessities. These issues are compounded by the fact that it could take many months for their cases to be processed — all which has been paused by the Trump administration under the guise of public health concerns.

Research has shown that the right to work is vital for refugees, allowing people to reduce vulnerability and risks. Under the MPP policy, Mexico agreed to allow asylum seekers employment authorization after obtaining temporary IDs. However, data from Ciudad Juarez — which has the largest population of asylum seekers in MPP — shows that a majority (63%) of people are unemployed, and only 37% are working.

For those who are working, more are likely to work informally than in the formal sector. According to the survey, 20% of asylum seekers in Ciudad Juarez work in the informal sector, 17% work in a formal job, and the rest are unemployed. Importantly, among the unemployed, a higher share is likely looking for work (36%) than those who are unemployed but not looking for work (27%).

Men are more likely to be working than women, according to the survey. In the formal sector, 72% of workers are male, compared to 28% who are female. However, women may have more work opportunities in the informal sector than the formal sector. About two-thirds of informal workers are male (63%), and some 37% are female. The most common industry for asylum seekers are services (39%), followed by commerce (21%), construction jobs (20%), and manufacturing (9%).

Expulsions & Turnbacks

Since March of this year, the Trump administration has been rapidly expelling migrants entering the U.S. without authorization — including asylum seekers and children — back to Mexico under the pretext of emergency public health orders related to COVID-19. As of January 2021, roughly 380,000 people have been turned back by CBP in the southern border under this new policy according to Customs and Border Protection data. The policy is another way in which the Trump administration is illegally blocking asylum protection to refugees fleeing violence and persecution.

The administration is relying on Title 42 of the U.S. Code and claims that this move is designed to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. These orders were issued by the CDC and have been used by DHS to deny protection to vulnerable populations. People expelled are denied due process and are immediately sent back to the country of last transit. Normally, people caught entering the U.S. without permission are processed for deportation (often federally charged with improper entry or improper reentry, particularly in the last two administrations), or are able to make a claim of asylum if they fear returning to their home country.

Among the people expelled are about 9,000 children that were turned back after arriving at the border unaccompanied. Many were being temporarily held in hotels before being expelled from the country — a move that has since been prohibited by a federal judge. In his ruling, the federal judge upheld the Flores Settlement Agreement, reiterating that migrant children have special protections under U.S. law. According to news reports, the administration is now considering amending these emergency health orders to exclude children from the rapid expulsions.

Breaking Up Families at the Border

Thousands of children were ripped from their parent’s arms during the Trump administration -- endangering the kid’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 records so poor - 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 recently published a case study of family separations in South Texas since June 2018. Their analysis of separations in the McAllen federal courthouse found that separations continue to this day, and the number of children 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.

Killer 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. Recent 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. According to the latest data from TRAC, a majority of MPP cases have been terminated (60%). This can include decisions where someone was ordered removed, had their proceedings terminated, or was granted relief. However, one-in-four (40%) of asylum seekers in MPP are still waiting to have a decision made on their case.

Only a small share of people ever get legal representation. For asylum seekers forced into the MPP program, only in 7% of cases did someone have a lawyer. Instead, in almost all cases (93%), the claimant is not represented. This helps explain why the probability that an asylum seeker that was forced to remain in Mexico is so low - a 1-in-100 chance of winning.

Alec, a faith leader from Honduras, faced life-threatening violence for trying to get kids out of gangs. Fearing for his life, he fled to the United States to seek asylum. Read Alec’s story here.

Learn more

The MPP program was first implemented in January 2019 and was slowly rolled out to several border sectors. The largest number of MPP cases were first opened in the late summer and early fall of 2019, when the program was expanded to Laredo and Brownsville, Texas. As of December 2020, 16% of people had their case first opened in July 2019, followed by 18% in August 2019 and 12% in September 2019. The data also shows that almost no cases have been opened since March, 2020 when the Trump administration froze asylum processing under the pretense of having concerns for COVID-19. However, as of December 2020, the number of people sent back to Mexico under MPP has begun to increase. Some 1,169 people were sent back in December - more than five times the amount in April 2020.

In Ciudad Juarez, 43% of asylum seekers had not yet had a hearing when they were surveyed in February 2020. However, almost all (84%) of respondents said that they still wanted to continue with their asylum process.

The MPP program returned thousands of asylum seekers to danger in Mexico to wait out their asylum hearings. Not everyone who is seeking asylum, however, is part of this program. Mexican citizens, unaccompanied minors, people whose primary language is not Spanish, those facing serious illness, and people in heightened danger in Mexico are not supposed to be part of this policy. Yet the policy of metering — which artificially restricted the number of people who could request asylum at a port of entry each day — also kept out thousands of other people seeking refuge.

This policy resulted in the emergence of 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 are handled by volunteers. According to a recent report by the Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin, there were still roughly 16,000 asylum seekers across eleven Mexican cities as of November 2020 on these waiting lists.

The largest waitlist of asylum seekers — which can include people who are in MPP and those who are not in the program — 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. At that time, it was estimated that it would take someone 10-11 months to be allowed to ask for asylum at a port of entry.

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. In the latest report, researchers caution that "more than ever, the names on the waitlists are not a true proxy for the total number of asylum seekers waiting in border cities. Civil society organizations report that many asylum seekers have entered the United States between ports of entry, returned to their countries of origin, or moved to other areas in Mexico."

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.

As of October, 2019 there were 17 shelters in operation in Ciudad Juarez. Yet only about four-in-ten (39%) asylum seekers in MPP are able to stay in an official shelter. Others are forced to rent houses or apartments (17%), hotels (9%), or rent a single private room or shared room. A small percentage — 6% — are able to stay with family or friends in Ciudad Juarez. About 1% of asylum seekers in Ciudad Juarez reported having to live on the streets.

Similarly, a majority of asylum seekers in Ciudad Juarez report feeling ‘unsafe.’ When surveyed in early 2020, 65% of all asylum seekers said they often felt unsafe, and only 23% said they felt safe. Female asylum seekers reported the highest levels of feeling unsafe in the city at 73%.

When asked why they felt unsafe in Ciudad Juarez, the largest response was due to ‘general crime/delinquency’ (43%). About four-in-ten (37%) of respondents said that they felt unsafe due to organized crime. The U.S. Department of State ranked Ciudad Juarez as ‘critical’ in a 2020 report, noting the risk posed by drug cartels in the region. Some 7% of asylum seekers noted that they felt unsafe due to xenophobia, and 14% noted feeling unsafe for two or more reasons.

Assaults on Migrants in Mexico

Since the beginning of 2019, the Trump administration has been systematically denying asylum protections to people fleeing danger and has 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 — has forced tens of thousands of vulnerable people to remain in some of the most dangerous parts of Mexico. As a result, more than a thousand people have suffered abuse and violence while in Mexico.

As of December 2020, Human Rights First has documented at least 1,314 reports of abuses against migrants under this program. Cases of torture, sexual assault, extortion, and other forms of egregious violence are not uncommon among asylum seekers in Northern Mexico. Asylum seekers and migrants in Mexico face challenges securing shelter, accessing medical care, securing employment and education or legal services.

Data from Human Rights First shows the extent of abuses. 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. As of May 13, 2020 over a thousand reports have been logged. The largest number of cases reported happened in December of 2019 with 240 reports in total.

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 Juarez 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 Juarez verify the high level of violent and criminal incidents against this population. The survey indicated that asylum seekers in MPP living in Ciudad Juarez 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 Juarez 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.



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