Squeezed by Trump Policies, Asylum Seekers Wait at ‘Window to US’

Migrants making their way through Mexico toward the United States navigate a minefield of dangers and bureaucracy. This week, Courthouse News takes a look at what they face and the people who help them along the way.

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – The reason so many refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua come through Mexico to seek asylum at America’s doorstep is simple, according to a University of California researcher who studies migration.

It’s pretty much the only way.

“There is virtually no legal way for people to approach the U.S. government for asylum from their own countries,” sociology professor David Scott Fitzgerald said.

While thousands of asylum seekers pile up along the border in northern Mexico, the Trump administration is taking measures to stem the flow. At some ports of entry, immigration authorities take just a handful of asylum applications daily while hundreds of migrants wait. Border agents block access to the U.S. at ports of entry, physically preventing migrants from touching U.S. soil and triggering the automatic court hearings.

Fitzgerald is Theodore E. Gildred chair in U.S.-Mexican relations and co-director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at University of California, San Diego. In his book “Refugee Beyond Reach: How Rich Democracies Repel Asylum Seekers,” which comes out later this month, he highlights many of the obstacles facing immigrants in the U.S., including asylum seekers.

Specifically, the deck is stacked against most migrants who need refuge. Except in rare cases, they are not eligible for resettlement from foreign countries. But once they get to U.S. soil, they can ask for asylum and the law requires our government to give them a hearing.

The Trump administration is doing several things to make that harder, Fitzgerald said.

One way is by taking their asylum applications, then turning them back to Mexico to await hearings. While not widely implemented before, the Trump administration said Tuesday the plan will be expanded.

The feds have also blocked migrants at legal ports of entry – something that isn’t technically illegal, Fitzgerald says, but violates a core principal in the way governments have traditionally dealt with refugees. Refusing to send refugees back to their oppressors has always been a tenet of refugee resettlement. Blocking them and turning them back is new, Fitzgerald said.

“It’s a very cynical way to abrogate that responsibility,” he said.

Edgar Corzo Sosa, the fifth general visitor to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission, said recently in Mexico City that the measure prevents people from accessing their right to refuge.

Edgar Corzo Sosa (left), fifth visitor general to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission. (Brad Poole / CNS)

Corzo estimates there are 400,000 migrants in Mexico, most of whom are heading toward the United States. The size of the caravans shot up last year from a previous maximum of about 1,500 people to about 7,000 in one group, but it’s an age-old issue, Corzo said.

“That is new. The caravans are not new,” he said.

Although the larger caravans might give the impression that more migrants are crossing Mexico, that’s not necessarily the case either. Even the larger caravans represent a small portion of the migrant population in Mexico, Corzo said.

Until this past December, Mexico had been halting migrants at their southern border and detaining the ones they caught in the country, much like the U.S. does. Now after initial vetting, the migrants get ID cards that allow them to work in Mexico and apply for permanent residency. Corzo prefers “open doors,” to allow migrants to come to Mexico and work, but he realizes not everyone agrees.

“Communities object to these people coming. If they are a person, they deserve human rights,” he said. Although most migrants come from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, recently there have been more from Venezuela, Cuba, and even India and Russia.

“The clear point is that we might be a window to the U.S.A.,” Corzo said.

The Human Rights Commission works transnationally with the American Civil Liberties Union, universities, and Mexican consulates in the U.S. to help migrants. The nongovernment organization also serves as a watchdog, ensuring that anyone in Mexico, including migrants who are just passing through, are treated humanely.

Last year, Corzo’s staff was busy almost exclusively dealing with migrants in caravans, and it hasn’t subsided the way he thought it would. He doesn’t think the migrants will stop, because they aren’t crossing Mexico just to give up at the border with the U.S., he said.

Fitzgerald and Corzo agree the situation is fluid and rapidly changing – both in the United States and in Mexico.

“We will have to wait to see what is happening,” Corzo said.

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