A new report found that asylum seekers, largely from Central America, are “facing potentially dangerous and unlivable conditions” in Mexico after being returned there to await immigration proceedings under the Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” policy.
The Human Rights Watch report, released Tuesday, was based on more than 20 in-depth interviews with asylum seekers in early May ― largely in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas ― as well as immigration court hearings for dozens more asylum seekers, and interviews with U.S. and Mexican government officials, activists and attorneys.
Human Rights Watch said it had learned of “serious harms” to asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez, including sexual assault, kidnapping and other violence, according to a news release.
Other advocates have previously raised concerns about the dangerous conditions in border cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, where more asylum seekers will now have to wait.
The report detailed experiences of asylum seekers who had been returned to Mexico under the Trump administration’s recent “remain in Mexico” policy, which has forced thousands who are looking for safety in the U.S. to wait in Mexico as their claims are processed.
Some have faced homelessness as a shortage of shelters in Ciudad Juárez has meant that those who couldn’t afford a hotel room or to rent a place have had to sleep in the streets, in churches or in abandoned homes.
“There are times when we either eat or pay for the hotel room,” said one asylum seeker, Luisa A. (asylum seekers’ names have been changed for pseudonyms in the report, out of concern for their safety). She and her 3-year-old son were staying in a shelter when they left to attend a preliminary immigration hearing, only to be told they’d lost their spot when they returned. They slept in the street until she was able to pool money with other women to pay for a low-cost hotel.
Another asylum seeker ― 20-year-old Delfina M. from Guatemala ― was returned with her 4-year-old son to Ciudad Juárez. She said once there, two men grabbed her in the street and sexually assaulted her, telling her not to scream or they’d kill her son. She told researchers: “I can still feel the dirtiness of what they did in my body.”
One 23-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras, Kimberlyn, said a taxi driver kidnapped her and her 5-year-old daughter after they were returned to Ciudad Juárez after an initial court hearing in the U.S. in April. The driver, who released them within hours, said he would kill them if her family did not pay an $800 ransom ― which they did, according to deposit receipts shown to researchers.
“The U.S. government has advanced a dangerous fiction that asylum seekers returned to Mexico will have access to work and shelter and a fair chance in U.S. immigration courts,” Human Rights Watch researcher and report co-author Clara Long said in a news release. “Instead, U.S. border officials are stranding mothers with small children and other vulnerable migrants in Mexican border cities where their safety and security are at risk.”
Last week, a group of American asylum officers urged a federal court to block the Trump administration’s policy, calling it “contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation.”
Lawyers in El Paso told Human Rights Watch that some asylum seekers being returned under the policy had been assigned court dates as far out as June 2020. Asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez told the group that they were afraid of being forced to wait in a place where they had no social ties or legal authorization to work and where shelters were often full.
An official from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juárez is, said migrant shelters in the city were able to hold about 1,000 people, the report said. Yet more than 6,000 asylum seekers had been returned to that city alone under the Trump administration policy as of June. And an additional 5,000 or so asylum seekers in the city were on a separate waitlist to seek asylum in the U.S.
A Honduran man who died on Sunday after being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for several weeks ― the sixth to die in ICE custody since October ― had previously been sent back to Mexico by the U.S. government after trying to seek asylum in May. He then attempted to come back to the U.S. days later, before his latest detention.
In its report, Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. government to end its policy and return asylum seekers to Mexico. It also called for the government to reduce the backlog of immigration cases and said it should avoid detaining migrants.
On Monday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other members of Congress visited migrants held in detention centers in Texas, where some migrant women said they were held in cells without water and at least one said she was told by officers to drink out of the toilet.