In the summer of 2014, citizens from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) arrived in great numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The majority were families and unaccompanied minors who were fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking asylum in the United States.
This influx of migrants became politicized as the U.S. border patrol and immigration court system struggled to process the new arrivals. In July 2014, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto launched Programa Frontera Sur (The Southern Border Program), a program that increases immigration enforcement in Mexico. During its first fiscal year, Mexico received tens of millions of dollars from the United States as funds for immigration enforcement. As of February 2016, the U.S. government had spent $15 million on support for Mexico’s southern border enforcement, largely through the Merida Initiative, a program through which Mexico receives U.S. aid for various security programs. This program resulted in a major crackdown on immigrants in Mexico and human rights organizations were quick to criticize the treatment of vulnerable migrants.
Although Programa Frontera Sur was touted as protection for vulnerable migrants, critics saw the tactics of the program as a violation of asylum seekers’ human rights. Between January 2014 and October 2015 there were ninety reported cases of Central Americans murdered in their own countries after being deported by the United States or Mexico. Critics also saw the U.S. government’s monetary support as an effort to outsource its migration problem to Mexico by not allowing migrants to reach the U.S. border in the first place. The Guardian reports that between October 2014 and April 2015, Mexico approximately doubled its deportations of Central American migrants, while the United States cut its detention of non-Mexican migrants by more than half.
The United Nations Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, to which both the United States and Mexico are signatories, is a key source of international refugee law. Article 33 of the Convention contains the most important principle in refugee law: non-refoulement, or not returning a refugee to a country where the person’s life or freedom would be threatened. Given the documented murders of recently deported people, it appears that current enforcement practices of the United States and Mexico violate the principle of non-refoulement. Article 31 holds that states shall not penalize migrants for their illegal entry or presence when they come from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened. Mexico’s practices of prolonged detention and deportation without proper opportunities to present an asylum claim certainly violate this article.
Following the UNHCR and OAS meeting on the status of Central American Refugees, the participating organizations and governments released the San Jose Action Statement: “Call to Action: Protection Needs in the Northern Triangle of Central America.” The document urges all participating states to “respect the human rights of all persons regardless of their condition . . . [and] to abandon a security vision to address mixed migration movements.” In the Action Statement, Mexico specifically committed to increase and strengthen the capacity of the international protection system in Mexico. The United States, for its part, did not mention its funding of Mexico’s immigration enforcement, but promised through the Action Statement to expand the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to allow refugees who meet certain requirements to initiate resettlement from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The tactics used by Mexican immigration enforcement to address increased migration have failed to guarantee the human rights and security of migrants. By expanding enforcement, officials blocked the most common routes of migration, forcing already vulnerable people to travel through remote areas and expose themselves to increased risks of extortion, robbery, and violence. Perhaps the biggest failure of Programa Frontera Sur is that it has created new barriers to attaining asylum in Mexico. Migrants who manage to present an application for asylum in Mexico are detained in poor conditions, sometimes for up to a year, which forces many applicants to give up on the asylum process. As of October 2015, the approval rate for asylum applications in Mexico was only twenty percent. In a recent report, The Washington Organization on Latin America (WOLA) posited that the number of asylum applications completed and approved in Mexico are low because the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) has disproportionately low funding within the budget of the National Migration Institute (INM).
The San Jose Action Statement demonstrates that the United States and Mexico are aware of the international community’s concerns and are willing to work with the UNHCR to improve their policies. In the Action Statement, Mexico and the United States both committed to make important changes to their immigration systems which, if enacted, will promote access to asylum and prevent needless suffering. Over the coming months, the UNHCR and the OAS should monitor on the ground immigration enforcement and asylum processing to ensure that the governments of both Mexico and the United States are complying with the San Jose Action statement and the UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.