One Year of Forced Return to Mexico; Three Years of Trump Dismantling the Asylum System
Today marks one year since the Trump administration implemented its forced Return to Mexico policy. In that time, the U.S. has sent tens of thousands of asylum seekers to dangerous northern border cities in Mexico to wait for their hearings in the U.S. It is the most visible but by no means the only policy that the administration has adopted in its effort to systematically dismantle the U.S. asylum system over the past two years.
The asylum system may seem distant and abstract to many Americans, but along with the refugee resettlement system, it’s the foundation of our country’s commitment to providing safety for people fleeing desperate conditions. In 1939, off the coast of Florida, the U.S. turned away a ship named the St. Louis, which carried 1,000 refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe. Nearly a third of the passengers were killed by the end of World War II. In the aftermath of the war and the horrors of the Holocaust, the U.S., along with other countries, resolved that people fleeing violence and persecution, like those on the St. Louis, would no longer be met with global indifference. Our country formalized the commitment in the bipartisan Refugee Act of 1980, which enshrined the principle of asylum in domestic immigration law. Since then, millions have found safety in the U.S., sometimes fleeing dangerous conditions created by our own foreign policy. The United States’ obligation is not only a legal one; it’s a moral one as well.
How quickly this administration has undone it all. We are now shipping tens of thousands of asylum seekers to other countries to avoid fulfilling our obligations. In January 2019, the administration rolled out the forced Return to Mexico program, officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols. Under MPP, DHS has sent almost 60,000 asylum seekers to wait for their hearings in Mexico — an unprecedented, illegal practice that forces vulnerable families to live in dangerous and dire conditions. MPP, along with another policy called “metering,” which illegally delays asylum seekers from entering at formal ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border, created full-blown humanitarian crises in cities like Matamoros and Juárez , where people are living in makeshift encampments or other shelters, often without access to adequate water, food, or medical care. Human Rights First documented at least 816 public reports of murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, and other violence against asylum seekers and migrants subjected to MPP.
In November, the Trump administration issued new “safe third country” regulations that detail illegal procedures by which DHS will send people seeking safety in the U.S. to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to apply for asylum in those countries instead. Tens of thousands of people flee those countries every year, and none has a fair and effective asylum system that could possibly handle the large volume of applications they’ll receive under this scheme.
For those asylum seekers who somehow manage to avoid being immediately sent to Mexico or Central America and are able to request asylum in the U.S., the administration has created even more hurdles.
It’s run roughshod over an already flawed initial screening process. Under programs expected to expand border-wide next month, asylum seekers receive the high-stakes credible fear interview, which determines whether they’re deported or allowed to pursue their asylum claim in immigration court, within 48 hours of their arrival and while they’re jailed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They are effectively prevented from consulting with counsel or any other third parties, in violation of the law.
The administration is also attempting to change the legal standards that asylum seekers must meet both in the credible fear interview and in the ultimate adjudication of their claim. Last July, the administration announced a ban on asylum eligibility for anyone who traveled by land through a third country and didn’t apply for asylum there, with extremely limited exceptions. (In 2018, the administration announced that anyone who crossed the border between formal ports of entry would be ineligible for asylum, but courts temporarily halted this ban.) The Attorney General issued decisions intended to limit the ability of people with gang- and domestic violence-based claims to win asylum, as well as people whose claims are based on their family membership. Most recently, the administration proposed new bars to asylum for people with minor criminal histories.
Finally, Trump attempted to force asylum seekers who have passed their credible fear interviews to remain in jail for the duration of their case, despite their eligibility for bond or parole. Fortunately, the courts halted these efforts. Had the policies been allowed to proceed, they would have tipped the scales against the asylum seekers; data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University show that detained asylum seekers are far less likely to win relief than asylum seekers who were never detained or who were released from custody.
This all sounds like a wonky laundry list of policies. But it’s not. Together, these changes to government practice have made it virtually impossible for asylum seekers at the border to receive protection in our country, or even more limited forms of relief from deportation. We have slammed the doors on our neighbors in need and pushed tens of thousands of asylum seekers into dangerous conditions in countries ill-equipped to protect them. The policies have nothing to do with “burden-sharing” with other countries in the region, or preventing fraud in the system. They are patently indifferent to the safety or well-being of the people subject to them. They are, quite simply, the administration’s most devastatingly comprehensive blueprint for halting immigration from non-European countries to the U.S..
Legal and advocacy organizations and the courts have proved crucial in defending against the Trump administration’s evisceration of the asylum system. But it’s simply not enough. It is incumbent upon the next president to undo Trump’s anti-asylum policies and restore access to protection for people seeking safety in the U.S. And, with the 2020 election upon us, we must all demand that presidential candidates commit to rebuilding and strengthening America’s asylum system and fulfilling our moral and legal obligations to once again provide refuge for those in need.