Rights observers and advocates have called on Mexico to release a clear plan for asylum seekers after a shift in US border policy that is expected to increase pressure on an already strained system.
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In its place, the administration of US President Joe Biden announced a new rule that allows for the rapid removal of people at the US border if they have not previously been denied asylum in a country through which they transited. They will also be quickly removed if they have not been approved for an appointment via the US’s CBP One app, used for immigration services.
The new policy dovetailed with last week’s announcement by Biden and Mexican President Lopez Obrador that the two countries will continue a joint expulsion policy — first announced in January — beyond the May 11 expiration of Title 42. That agreement allows the US to expel as many as 30,000 people from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela to Mexico a month.
But observers have said a long-term plan remains elusive for how Mexico will address both a likely uptick in asylum applications in the wake of last week’s policy shift and the continued expulsion of foreign nationals.
“[The Mexican government] should tell us what’s happening and what the plan is,” said Gretchen Kuhner, the director of the Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI) in Mexico City.
The group is one of dozens of Mexican civil society groups that sent a list of questions seeking clarity from the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard and Secretary of Governance Adan Augusto Lopez Hernandez last week.
Among the questions asked: Will those expelled be allowed to seek asylum in Mexico? What measures will be adopted to guarantee the safety of persons returned to Mexican territory? What type of “joint agreement or collaboration” with the US has Mexico negotiated to meet the needs of those sent to Mexico? And will that include increased support for Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), which handles asylum claims?
“We haven’t received any answers yet,” Kuhner told Al Jazeera.
‘Not seen any concrete steps’
Ana Martín Gil, who monitors Latin American migration policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, also said a clear plan has yet to emerge, including how Mexico will deal with a possible increase in asylum claims related to the US policy.
“So far, I have not seen any concrete steps,” she told Al Jazeera.
Increases in Mexican asylum applications have typically followed US policy shifts, according to Martín Gil. She pointed to former President Donald Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “remain in Mexico” policy, which required those seeking asylum from the US to remain in Mexico while their cases were adjudicated.
People subjected to the MPP had paltry levels of success trying to reach the US. Meanwhile, the number of asylum claims in Mexico doubled in the wake of the policy’s roll out. Claims jumped from just less than 30,000 in 2018 to 60,000 in 2019 — the first year the policy was implemented.
“It’s always a combination of factors,” Martín Gil said. “But we have seen in the past that every time that the US makes access to asylum more difficult, migrants turn to Mexico.”
Advocates have said migrants make asylum claims in Mexico for several reasons.
Some see it as a pathway to stay in the country to attempt to one day enter the US, with COMAR’s head Andres Ramirez in February accusing some of treating the department “like a kind of travel agency” that has put the agency in a situation of “near-breakdown”.
At the time, COMAR launched a pilot programme to quickly reject asylum applications of those believed not to have intentions to stay in the country, although it was later abandoned.
But Tyler Mattiace, a Mexico researcher at Human Rights Watch, said increased migration enforcement within Mexico by authorities leaves some migrants with few options but to claim asylum.
For instance, he said, the southern border city of Tapachula, which sits near a key Guatamala-Mexico crossing point, has “become a sort of open-air refugee waiting centre”.
“There are checkpoints with soldiers that prevent you from getting out. So a lot of people end up there and they see their only option as applying for asylum in Mexico.”
The Mexican government, he said, has continued to pour more resources into the enforcement-minded National Institute of Migration (INM) over the more humanitarian-focused COMAR, at times with deadly consequences.
Mexico detained about 450,000 people last year, with many moved to 66 detention centres across the country. The dire conditions in those centres were underscored by a fire at a Ciudad Juarez facillity in March that killed 40 of those detained. Mexico has since temporarily closed 33 sites for inspection.
For his part, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Ebrard has said the government does not agree with the Biden administration’s recent border decision.
“Our position is the opposite, but we respect their (US) jurisdiction,” Ebrard told reporters last week, as he pledged to speed up Mexican deportations to lessen stresses.
He also announced the end of the issuance of Multiple Immigration Forms, which served as permits that allowed some people to temporarliy – but legally – pass through Mexico.
The action removes yet another option for migrants in the country, IMUMI’s Kuhner said.
“So now people are just going to be stuck. And that means that people might have to go back to applying for asylum even if they don’t want to stay here because that’s the only option there is,” she said.
Unable to meet need
But Mexican officials, including COMAR’s Ramirez, have also said that ballooning asylum claims in the country show it is being viewed as a final destination for more people seeking safety. Mexico employs a more liberal definition of those eligible for asylum or other protections than the US, which typically results in higher approval rates.
Asylum applications have ballooned in the country in the last several years, making Mexico the third-largest destination for people seeking safety after the US and Germany. In 2022, there were 118,000 new asylum applications in Mexico registered by the end of the year, up from just 14,596 in 2017 and about 2,137 in 2014.
Between January and March of this year, COMAR had already received 37,000 asylum claims. If that rate continues, 2023 is on track to have the highest number of applications ever.
However, “the budget has not kept pace with the growing number of applications that Mexico is receiving”, Martín Gil told Al Jazeera, even amid increased support from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which has boosted COMAR’s capacity in recent years and allowed them to expand from 3 offices to 10.
Added Human Rights Watch researcher Mattiace: “Capacity and funding staff has been an issue for the asylum agency, and it continues to be an issue for the asylum agency.”
The result, said Ari Sawyer, a Mexico City-based researcher at Human Rights Watch, has been “huge backlogs” that leave people waiting for months for a decision. Those backlogs are further compounded by a policy that typically requires refugee applicants to remain in the state where they seek asylum.
In 2022, more than 75 percent of all claims were made in the Guatamala-bordering southern state of Chiapas, where Tapachula is located. The state has the highest poverty rate in Mexico, at 75 percent.
“Local people struggle to survive. There are already limited resources for the people living there. And so keeping migrants and keeping asylum seekers trapped creates a lot of problems for the local people who then started blaming the migrants and targeting migrants,” Sawyer told Al Jazeera.
“A lot of people end up in makeshift encampments or they end up staying in shelters and other places that are targeted by cartels and by Mexican officials for harassment, extortion, and robbery,” Sawyer said. “There’s no government protection, which is the definition of asylum.”
Despite the US policy change, there has been little sign that that migration in the Americas will abate.
On Monday, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements told Reuters news agency that the number of people crossing the Darien gap — a stretch of jungle separating Panama and Colombia that is a main route to Mexico and the US — could hit record numbers this year.
“The reasons that people have picked up their families and lives to try to rebuild elsewhere have not changed,” Clements said.