One Year into “Remain in Mexico,” the U.S. Is Enlisting Central America In Its Crackdown on Asylum

Mexico is doing the work of Trump’s wall, keeping migrants from the U.S. Now the administration is trying to push the border to Central America.

Migrants wait in line outside the Mexican Commission for Migrant Assistance office to get the documents needed that allows them to stay in Mexico, in Tapachula, Thursday, June 20, 2019. The flow of migrants into southern Mexico has seemed to slow in recent days as more soldiers, marines, federal police, many as part of Mexico's newly formed National Guard, deploy to the border under a tougher new policy adopted at a time of increased pressure from the Trump administration.  (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)
Migrants wait in line outside the Mexican Commission for Migrant Assistance office in Tapachula to get the documents needed to allow them to stay in Mexico on June 20, 2019. Photo: Oliver de Ros/AP

It was the gunshots that did it. Leonardo had received death threats from a criminal gang extorting money from the little store run out of his family’s home on the eastern outskirts of San Salvador, and he stayed. But when the words progressed to bullets, he knew it was time to leave.

“They shot at the house. They fired 14 times,” said Leonardo, who was inside with two other people at the time of the attack.

Leonardo left home early one morning last April and travelled the 300 miles from El Salvador to Mexico in one day. He rode a bus alone through Guatemala, rafted across the Suchiate River into Mexico, and made it up to Tapachula, in the southern state of Chiapas, by nightfall. He would never have guessed that he would spend the next eight months there. (Leonardo, like most of the migrants and asylum-seekers interviewed in this story, asked not to be identified by his real name, fearing for his own safety and that of family members in El Salvador.)

He obtained permission to stay in southern Mexico, but he was once detained overnight anyway. Immigration agents tried to pressure him to sign a voluntary deportation form, telling him the alternative was weeks in custody, he said.

“They know they are violating the law,” he told me late last year, sitting on a shaded curb with dozens of other migrants and asylum-seekers outside of an immigration office in Tapachula.

Leonardo has since made it to the U.S.-Mexico border, where he signed up on the local waitlist to cross into the United States and ask for asylum. His number is several hundred away from being called.

More than 59,000 asylum-seekers have made it to the U.S. border only to be returned to Mexico while their claims are processed.

If he does get to speak to a U.S. official, there’s a good chance he’ll be sent back to Mexico. Under the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” more than 59,000 asylum-seekers have made it to the U.S. border only to be returned to Mexico while their claims are processed.

One year ago, on January 29, 2019, the U.S. sent a Honduran asylum-seeker back to Tijuana to wait for his immigration court date — the first person subjected to “Remain in Mexico.” Since then, people from dozens of countries have been affected, but Honduras and Guatemala comprised more than 60 percent of cases, and Cuba, El Salvador, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Nicaragua accounted for most of the rest.

Migrant and human rights groups have repeatedly condemned the policy. Fewer than five percent of people subject to the MPP had access to legal representation. Children, LGBTQ asylum-seekers, and people with disabilities have all been sent back to some of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.

“As of January 21, 2019, Human Rights First has tracked at least 816 public reports of murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, and other violent attacks against asylum seekers and migrants returned to Mexico under MPP,” the organization noted in a fact sheet released this month.

The policy was a milestone in the Trump administration’s assault on asylum, but that assault has spread much further south. In response to U.S. pressure, Mexico has clamped down on migration, changing transit policies and militarizing enforcement. And under new agreements, asylum-seekers who still manage to make it to the U.S. border now risk being sent to countries in Central America, not just Mexico.

With camps of people stuck waiting at ports of entry, MPP may be the most visible way the U.S. government blocks people from setting foot on U.S. soil, but there are many other forms of border externalization. They didn’t all start with Trump, but his administration has intensified efforts to get other countries, especially in Central America, to play the part of immigration police.

The global expansion of the U.S. border really got going after the September 11, 2001 attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security the following year, said Tucson-based journalist Todd Miller, who has researched the phenomenon for years and documented U.S. border externalization in his latest book, “Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World.” The departments of Homeland Security, Defense and State are all involved in activities related to border expansion, Miller said. DHS agents from Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations — a domestic and global arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — advise and train local border security forces in other countries, as do members of the U.S. military and other forces.

“This is all over the place,” said Miller. “This is a phenomenon that you’re seeing around the world.”

Central America became a particular priority in 2014 following a surge in arrivals of unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, said Miller. And as Trump has fixated on groups of migrants traveling together in caravans, calling them “invasions,” his administration has tried to get Central American governments to do more to stop people from reaching the U.S. and to accept asylum-seekers that the U.S. turns back.

The U.S. signed “Border Security Arrangements” with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras in 2019. Their purpose, according to DHS, is to deploy CBP and ICE officials “to advise and mentor host nation police, border security, immigration and customs counterparts.” Yet while the U.S. is sending more personnel to Central America, the most effective deployment these days is arguably not its own but that of its southern neighbor. During the year “Remain in Mexico” has been in force, Mexico has drastically stepped up its role as proxy enforcer in the U.S. clampdown on overland migration.

“Mexico is playing the role of the wall.”

Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office on December 1, 2018, and his government publicly objected to the announcement of MPP plans later that month. In January 2019, officials processed humanitarian visas for thousands of predominantly Honduran migrants and asylum-seekers, including many traveling in the caravans. But the government abruptly stopped accepting applications after two weeks, right when MPP was implemented.

In May, Trump threatened to impose escalating tariffs on Mexican exports to the U.S. if Mexico did not take action to impede northbound migration. The following month, the two governments announced a deal: MPP would be expanded along the joint border, and Mexico would deploy 6,000 members of its nascent National Guard to areas along and near the border with Guatemala.

Gabriel, a Cuban man I met outside an immigration office in Ciudad Juárez in June, made it north through Mexico shortly before the deal, but some policies had already shifted. He told me he had faced political persecution in Cuba since refusing years earlier to become a government informant while working at an international airport. He landed in Nicaragua in late April and made his way north with other Cubans, paying bribes here and there to pass, but they did not get past one of the many checkpoints in Chiapas.

Gabriel and the others were sent to an overcrowded immigration detention facility in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

“We slept piled on top of each other. I contracted scabies,” said Gabriel. “So many people had pneumonia.”

Mexico’s National Immigration Institute said in a statement earlier this month that its immigration stations were never at more than 50 percent capacity in the last three months of 2019. However, some facilities in Chiapas have periodically been severely over capacity. A spokesperson from the institute was not available for comment on conditions in custody, including allegations of coercion and recent restrictions on NGO monitoring visits, by time of publication.

Immigration officials in Tuxtla Gutiérrez tried pressuring people to sign voluntary deportation forms by threatening to restrict food and phone calls. Instead, detainees began organizing to break out. They initially agreed to riot May 13, but postponed it by a day so that it would not happen during the shift of the one guard who treated everyone humanely, according to Gabriel.

“We yelled, ‘Freedom! Freedom!’” said Gabriel. “The federal and municipal police showed up.”

Roughly 40 migrants and asylum-seekers, mostly Cuban and a few Central Americans, eventually managed to break out that night. It was just one of several organized, largely Cuban-led escapes from immigration facilities in Mexico last year, most of them in Chiapas. Gabriel made it to Ciudad Juárez, where he was among thousands of people on the waitlist to be allowed to cross the bridge into the U.S. to request asylum — and then possibly be sent right back.

Gabriel’s case highlights the particular situation in which Cuban migrants find themselves. Cubans used to get a waiver to transit Mexico to the U.S., where they have had their own specific path to regularization for decades. But Cubans are not exempt from “Remain in Mexico,” and Mexico soon stopped issuing them waivers.


At their tent camp outside the Siglo XXI immigration detention center in Tapachula, African migrants and asylum-seekers shelter from the rain in October of 2019.

Photo: Sandra Cuffe for The Intercept

Mexico also shifted its policy toward many African migrants and asylum-seekers not long after the U.S. threats of tariffs. Instead of releasing them with waivers that give them two or three weeks to leave Mexico, in effect permitting transit north, Mexico began restricting people to the state of Chiapas and requiring exit by the country’s southern border with Guatemala.

“Mexico is playing the role of the wall,” Ze, an Angolan asylum-seeker, told me as he and a dozen others from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo gathered under a small canopy tent on a rainy afternoon outside the Siglo XXI immigration detention center in Tapachula last October.

Tarp-covered tents covered the Siglo XXI grounds. Part encampment and part protest, African migrants and asylum-seekers had been living and organizing together at Mexican authorities’ doorstep for months, seeking waivers.

Ze, his wife, and their four children flew to Brazil and gradually made their way north, presenting themselves to immigration authorities in each country along the way, he said. They were sometimes detained for a period, but then issued transit permits. Ze was held in Tapachula for two weeks, and that is where the journey stalled.

“We have protested. We have marched,” he said. “Nothing has changed.”

Another African migrant who ended up in Tapachula, Patrice, was making the journey with his pregnant wife and three young children. After fleeing political persecution and war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the family traveled 2,500 miles up through the Americas. Traversing the Darién Gap along the way still haunts them. The Pan-American Highway connecting South, Central, and North America has only one gap: through the Darién jungle between Colombia and Panama.

“We walked for two weeks through the Darien,” Patrice told me. “There were corpses of people who died along the way.”

After four months in Tapachula, Patrice and his family joined African, Caribbean, and Central American migrants and asylum-seekers on October 12 to head north in a caravan together, but they did not even make it 20 miles out of the city. National Guard troops blocked the highway, and security forces and immigration agents fanned out to detain people, though most had authorization to be in the state of Chiapas and were released after spending one to several nights in Siglo XXI.

This month, the Mexican National Guard and immigration agents mounted another massive operation to halt the advance of caravan groups made up of predominantly Honduran migrants and asylum-seekers. More than 2,000 people were detained and deported despite López Obrador’s initial promises that there were 4,000 temporary jobs available for migrants arriving with the caravan.

Migrants board buses after their passage was blocked by Mexican National Guards near Tapachula, Mexico, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. Hundreds of Central American migrants crossed the Suchiate River into Mexico from Guatemala Thursday after a days-long standoff with security forces. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Migrants board buses after their passage was blocked by the Mexican National Guard near Tapachula, Mexico, on Jan. 23, 2020.

Photo: Marco Ugarte/AP

Hard as it has become to get through Mexico, those that do make it could now wind up back in Guatemala. In November, the Trump administration implemented a new “asylum cooperative agreement” that allows the U.S. to send asylum-seekers to Guatemala to seek protection there instead or return home. As of Monday, the U.S. had sent 166 Hondurans and 102 Salvadorans to Guatemala, according to the Guatemalan Immigration Institute. Fewer than five percent have chosen to seek asylum in Guatemala, and for good reason.

Violent crime, including murder, is common, the U.S. State Department notes in its travel advisory for Guatemala, as it does in its advisories for Honduras and El Salvador. Despite their major differences, the three countries also share deep-rooted political corruption, structural inequality, and cross-border criminal groups. They are among the top countries of origin of migrants and asylum-seekers apprehended at the U.S. border — not safe havens for people fleeing for their lives.

“If they send me to Guatemala, it is as though they are sending me back to Honduras.”

“If they send me to Guatemala, it is as though they are sending me back to Honduras, because the same gangs that are in Honduras are in Guatemala,” said Edwin, a Honduran asylum-seeker fleeing extortion-related threats of violence against his family from both gang members and police. As we spoke last October, he watched his 6-year-old son playing beside him in the central plaza of Tapachula.

The U.S. also signed asylum cooperative agreements with Honduras and El Salvador last year. Their status is in flux, but Honduras and the U.S. were supposed to begin implementation “in the coming weeks,” DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf said January 9 at a joint press conference with the Honduran president. Under the deal, the U.S. could potentially send asylum-seekers from Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other countries to Honduras. The asylum cooperative agreement is “a humanitarian responsibility,” said Wolf.

Rigoberto Cabezas laughed when asked outside a Tapachula immigration office last October what he thought about Honduras being considered a safe country for refugees, but he knows it’s possible he could be sent there with his wife and two young sons, aged 2 and 6. They fled Nicaragua in August, after two years of political persecution, including detention and threats, due to his active participation in protests against the government, said Cabezas.

“They are all a bunch of thieves,” he said, referring to the governments in the region. “If the situation were different, we would not be migrating.”

Join The Conversation