More Central Americans than ever before are seeking asylum in Mexico, fleeing their violence-torn homelands. Yet even with some improvements to the asylum system there, the country has not met pace with the demand, adequately addressed the various obstacles to asylum, or provided sufficient services to asylum recipients.
In recent years, Mexico has experienced an unprecedented rise in the number of migrants passing through or staying in the country. Though U.S. immigration policies, border militarization, and deportation crackdowns have impacted migrant decisions to treat Mexico as a destination rather than a corridor, the shift is largely driven by escalating violence in Central America, particularly in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, a trend that is more easily tracked to the rising number of migrants in Mexico and the dangers they face along the migration routes than any particular U.S. law or administration.
A large proportion of these migrants are asylum seekers. In fact, 8,800 people applied for asylum in Mexico last year, nearly seven times as many as in 2013, and this year’s asylum applications projection is 22,500, according to COMAR, the commission responsible for the welfare of asylum seekers and rulings on their cases. Despite the greater demand for a more extensive and better equipped asylum system, the government has not met the need, and asylum seekers encounter much the same obstacles and abuses in Mexico as they do in the U.S.:
- Lack of adequate screening to determine candidates for asylum.
- Misinformation about the asylum process and rights, or active discouragement of seeking asylum.
- Lack of access to legal assistance or representation.
- Prolonged detention as well as poor and often intimidating conditions there, including use of force and other mistreatment.
- Poor training and supervision of immigration agents.
- Expedited asylum decisions that don’t give full consideration to the applicant.
In addition, Mexico requires that asylum seekers file applications within 30 days of arriving in the country. This is an absurdly unrealistic deadline for most migrants, especially families filing more than one application and anyone learning about this option once they arrive at the northern border (since the journey from the southern border usually takes longer than a month, sometimes as long as a year or two). By contrast, the filing deadline in the U.S. is a year after arrival. Moreover, eligible asylum seekers at the northern border find themselves far from COMAR offices, are evaluated through phone rather than in-person interviews, and must remain in the location where they submitted their application for months while their case is pending.
There is also the failure to address the needs of unaccompanied migrant children who are arriving in Mexico in greater numbers, many of whom are fleeing violence to join family members in the United States. Mexican law requires that immigration authorities must take into account children’s best interest; however, no mechanisms exist to get children safely to family members who can care for them while they fight an asylum claim, and more broadly, immigration authorities often ignore established protocols for dealing with children. Unaccompanied children who are detained by Mexican officials have two choices: Fight an asylum case in Mexico where they have no family, or be deported to their home of origin to face possible torture and death. Not surprisingly, children are falling through the cracks. In 2016, more than 40,000 children were detained, according to government statistics, yet only 1% filed asylum claims and only 131 of those children received some form of protection, a startling and heartbreaking testament to the need for expansion and reform in Mexico’s asylum system.
But perhaps the most disconcerting and dangerous situation confronting all migrants and asylum seekers in Mexico is the overwhelming incidence of crimes against them—harassment, assault, theft, extortion, kidnapping, rape, and murder—which largely go uninvestigated and unpunished. A recent contributing factor is the growing presence of organized gangs from Central America working with Mexican cartels and targeting migrants at Mexico’s southern border. Perpetrators commit crimes with overt impunity, trusting that they will not be held accountable, and statistics confirm their assumption. According to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), of 5,824 crimes against migrants reported in five Mexican states and at the federal level from 2014–2016, only 49 resulted in sentencing, an astoundingly miniscule 1%!
Based on these numbers, fully 99% of perpetrators of crimes against migrants can expect no penalty whatsoever from the state. Corruption and impunity make Mexico unsafe for migrants and asylum seekers, even after their applications are approved, since access to recourse, justice, or various sources of protection is minimal. (Read more about migrant safety and criminal impunity in our recent Sonoran Migrant Network report, in Spanish: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/es/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Informe-RMS.pdf . For a summary of the aforementioned WOLA report, in English, or the full report, in Spanish, go to: https://www.wola.org/analysis/access-justice-migrants-mexico-right-exists-books/ .)
It is encouraging to note improvements implemented by the Mexican government, such as increasing COMAR staffing; establishing a special crime investigation office; offering better access to humanitarian, legal, and psychological services; and initiating a pilot release program to reduce the number of migrants held in detention. As a result, asylum has been granted more frequently. However, these changes are insufficient to the task at hand, which broadly is to address the long-term implications, build the necessary infrastructure, and expand support services for migrants who now stay in Mexico longer. U.S. investment in immigration law enforcement, the asylum system, and migrant services is certainly helpful, but is also regarded as a deterrence strategy to keep migrants from crossing into or seeking asylum in the U.S.
As a binational organization, the KBI advocates for greater options for migrants, so many of whom have already encountered violence, poverty, or other traumas wherein their choices are forced or limited. Our advocacy staff continues to monitor conditions for asylum seekers in both the U.S. and Mexico, and migrant testimonies at the comedor and shelter provide much needed documentation of problems and insights into solutions. Overall, there is a greater need for monitoring of Mexico’s migrant services, asylum system, and protections and access to justice for crime victims. For example, Advocacy Coordinator Marla Conrad serves on the Citizen’s Council of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, which advises on immigration matters.
KBI supporters in the U.S. can assist in these advocacy efforts by contacting legislators to re-direct foreign aid to anti-corruption initiatives and support of the judicial system in Mexico rather than continued investment in the country’s police and military, and to insist that U.S. aid be subject to robust human rights conditions. Though progress is slow, the welfare and safety of people who are displaced, far from home, and in need is of paramount importance to the KBI’s mission and to creating a world where justice and dignity are available to all.
Central American migrants, many seeking asylum in Mexico or the U.S., ride atop a north-bound cargo train—known as “La Bestia” or “The Beast”—an extremely dangerous form of transportation that is also illegal, leading to apprehension by Mexican authorities.