Reflections on the Remain in Mexico Policy and its potentially fatal consequences for Refugees

In the pre-dawn light, migrants of the caravan line up to catch rides in southern Oaxaca. October 30, 2018. Photo by Ale López

On January 24th, the Trump administration rolled out a new anti-refugee plan known as the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), or more popularly known as the ‘Remain In Mexico’ Policy. So far MPP has only been implemented in Tijuana but many believe TJ is just testing ground for these draconian policies before expanding them throughout the US/Mexico border. The policy states that refugees, most of whom are Central American, must wait in Mexico for their United States asylum cases to be processed.

Housing and safe shelter is already scarce in Tijuana. The refugee camp El Barretal was closed the last week of January by the Mexican government. On January 9th, following a 6 day occupation, the Benito Juarez warehouse (Contra Viento Y Marea) where hundreds of refugees lived was evicted. Most shelters are at capacity and are limited in terms of who they accept, i.e. families only, turning away trans and queer folks, limiting time and availability before requiring payment. This is all against the backdrop of yet another migrant/refugee caravan heading north, with estimates of up to 12,000 people arriving. Moreover, the Trump/Pence administration publicly pledged support for the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, an outright coup attempt against the democratically elected Maduro government which could lead to yet more refugees migrating up from Latin America.

In the last caravan, several Mexican municipal and state governments purchased bus tickets for those traveling with the exodus, just to have them arrive huge numbers in unsafe border towns where migrants and refugees are forced to wait to have their number called on the illegal list, co-managed by the Mexican government affiliated Grupos Betas and members of the caravan itself. The “list” in Tijuana has a significant racialized history, beginning with the Haitian migrants trying to apply for asylum four years ago. Back then it was primarily used against Black refugees, but now everyone is forced to participate in it, although categorically many people are entirely unable to access the list at all. Some of the other Ports of Entry have started their own lists, however Tijuana’s is the longest. The list is theoretically a means to manage the thousands of people seeking asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, but the list has systematically caused refugees to be forced to wait in Mexico for multiple months without adequate housing, food or resources.

Migrants resist eviction of “Contra viento y marea”, a self-organized shelter housed in a warehouse. January 4th, 2019. Photo by Ale López

Thousands of folks have entered Tijuana in the last few months, many of which are fleeing rampant cartel violence promulgated by police and military corruption, poverty, climate catastrophes and other intolerable conditions in their home countries. Many trans women, queer folks leave due to transphobic and gender based violence, while others are fleeing different forms of Domestic Violence.  

Moreover, many womxn and children are escaping human tracking; many womxn and girls traveling north are abducted while traveling and experience gender based violence upon their arrival. In some instances womxn are asked to “pay rent” in exchange for housing. Many migration policies are based around the experiences of male migrants because often times they are ones who are more likely to make it the entire way to the border, but then will face the Catch-22 of most single men’s asylum claims are rejected.

Unaccompanied minors are unable to access the list entirely and while higher up’s in DHS give lip service to children being able to apply for asylum, in accordance with international and U.S. law. In reality children and youth are often times totally unable to even reach the port of entry, being snatched by the military, federales, mexican immigration, the cartels,  private security and others. These kids then risk being sent to DFF, Mexican child protection services, which almost definitely will deport them back to their home countries.

In the last two months, two unaccompanied minors were tortured and brutally murdered by the cartels following the caravan. One minor was allowed to escape in order to pass along the message to others. These kids were actively working on their asylum claims and were waiting to present themselves at a US port of entry.

Tijuana is often a scene where folks fleeing their persecutors in their home countries are now fleeing imminent threats of violence here as they await for their number to be called or deciding their next steps. At the entry point known as Chaparral, where numbers are called, asylum seeker’s names are read aloud to the group, putting them in further danger understanding that their persecutors could be lurking there.

This is all to say the Remain in Mexican policy, with its Orwellian official title of Migrant Protection Protocols, is a death sentence for many of the most vulnerable caravan members. The first week of this policy being laid out has already resulted in folks being turned back to Mexico. While the future is treacherous for many asylum seekers who are first processed in the “helleras”, known as “the ice-boxes”, and then transferred to detention centers which could result in indefinite detention dependent on where they are placed. All those seeking asylum at least had the hope of being released from custody in the U.S. where they can prepare for their asylum case with their attorneys, families and sponsors. This sudden policy change is not only disruptive to many folks lives but only adds increased pressure on the available shelter space and resources for migrants headed North. Simultaneously caravans from the South are being stopped at the Guatemala/Mexico border, quotas are being installed on Humanitarian visas and the Mexican government said it will only receive refugees between the ages of 18 and 60.

While governments along the route North are working in together to impede migrants and refugees fleeing for survival, these policies will not stop migrants and will just result in unnecessary violent consequences. As Hunan Rights organizations prepare to sue over these policies, for now the results of these changes will unfold in an already unstable situation on the eve of another caravan arriving soon.

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