Internal CBP Documents Detail “Transnational Effort to Shut Down Asylum”

The U.S. government’s militarized response to the 2019 crisis made it much worse, advocates say.

Central American migrants walk along the Mexican bank of the Rio Bravo that divides the cities of Eagle Pass, in Texas, US and Piedras Negras, in the state of Coahuila, Mexico on February 17, 2019. - Last week Trump invoked a "national emergency" to justify tapping military and other funds for barrier construction, after Congress approved less than a fourth the $5.7 billion he had sought for border security. A White House top adviser said Sunday that the president's emergency declaration could allow "hundreds of miles" of barriers to be built on the Mexican border before the 2020 election. (Photo by Julio Cesar AGUILAR / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP via Getty Images)
Central American migrants walk along the Mexican bank of the Rio Bravo, which divides the cities of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, on Feb. 17, 2019. Photo: Photo: Julio César Aguilar/AFP via Getty Images

In early 2019, nearly 2,000 migrants traveling through Mexico found themselves crammed into a former body bag factory in the town of Piedras Negras, just south across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. The local authorities had converted the factory into a migrant shelter as then-U.S. President Donald Trump stoked fears over asylum-seekers making their way toward the U.S.

Conditions inside the large, dark shelter were dire, and migrants grew sick and staged protests. The Mexican government had detained them, seemingly at the behest of the United States, and then engaged in a citywide effort to severely limit the number of people approaching the border to levy an asylum claim, a practice known as “metering” that was later deemed illegal by a U.S. federal judge.

Meanwhile, the U.S. launched a heavily militarized response to the relatively small buildup of asylum-seekers, with multiple state and federal agencies getting involved, including Army combat units. At the same time, U.S. Customs and Border Protection was planning the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols program, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” which forces asylum-seekers to wait out their claims in dangerous Mexican border cities.

Around 1,000 pages of newly uncovered CBP documents, including internal emails and daily situational reports, offer an unprecedented view of the lengths the U.S. and Mexican governments went at that time to surveil, detain, and deport migrants on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. The documents, which were obtained via Freedom of Information Act litigation by immigration attorneys and advocates and provided to The Intercept, show how the authorities paid specific attention to the asylum-seekers in Piedras Negras and that CBP was aware of both the miserable conditions inside the factory where they were held and how the binational policies were pushing people to make deadly clandestine border crossings.

Andrew Case, senior counsel for LatinoJustice, told The Intercept that the documents tell “a harrowing story about how CBP was made aware of a humanitarian crisis and, rather than address it, worsened it by adopting a military posture and implementing the MPP program.” CBP did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Three years later, the Biden administration continues to implement some of the most sweeping Trump-era anti-asylum policies, including an expanded version of MPP, in close collaboration with the government of Mexico. During a recent meeting between U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the two nations discussed, among other objectives, their “shared commitment to stemming irregular migration [and] creating viable legal pathways.” But more than a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, both the United States and Mexico continue to crack down on migrants and have done effectively nothing to open up pathways to safely and legally migrate.

While Biden ended MPP upon entering office, a court ordered his administration to restart it — a process that has so far been marred with chaos. Biden has also resisted widespread demands to rescind Title 42, an antiquated public health code that the government has used since March 2020 to summarily expel migrants without giving them a chance to apply for asylum. Facing increasing pressure from a host of critics, including members of Congress and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Biden administration is possibly considering letting Title 42 expire in April.


Catastrophic Asylum Program “Remain in Mexico” Could Get Even Worse, Depending on the Supreme Court

Though anti-migration policies and the deliberate weakening of asylum protections are well documented in both the United States and Mexico, the documents expose the intricate details of how CBP coordinated with multiple countries and multiple U.S. agencies to seal the southern border.

The Texas Department of Public Safety, the Eagle Pass Police Department, the Army’s 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade (most recently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan for, among other missions, “deliberate and hasty air assault capabilities”), and the Texas National Guard all participated in the response to what CBP officials called a possible “mass migration event,” the documents show. CBP special agents were called in and a mobile processing center was moved from Washington, D.C., to Eagle Pass. CBP also mobilized manned and unmanned aircraft and established a no-fly zone. An Army brigadier general met with CBP leadership to be briefed on the “current caravan situation.”

On the other side of the border, Mexico’s immigration agency, abbreviated as INM, municipal Piedras Negras police, various units of the Coahuila (the Mexican state where Piedras Negras is located) police, the Mexican federal police, and a federal intelligence agency all worked to block, corral, and deport the migrants. According to the documents, the “controlled metering of small groups” continued by “mutual agreement of CBP, INM, and City of Piedras Negras Officials.”

While the U.S. agencies were most heavily focused on activity near the border, CBP was also closely monitoring groups of migrants from as far south as the Darién Gap in Panama, with a clear intent to deter them. The Department of Homeland Security’s “Human Smuggling Cell,” as the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center was referred to in internal emails, analyzed nearly 10,000 records from migrants who were processed in southern Mexico and coordinated with the governments of Colombia and Panama to track the migrants.

It was, as Human Rights Watch researcher Ari Sawyer put it, a “transnational effort to shut down asylum.”

Central American migrants stay at a former factory used as a shelter in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, Mexico, on the border with the US, on February 6, 2019. - Around 1,700 migrants traveling by caravan reached the US-Mexican border Tuesday, just as President Donald Trump prepared to give a major speech that included calls for his long-sought wall. (Photo by Julio Cesar AGUILAR / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Central American migrants are detained at a former factory in Piedras Negras, Mexico, on Feb. 6, 2019.

Photo: Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP via Getty Images

First Arrival

In and around the factory in Piedras Negras, which some of the migrants claim they were “tricked” into entering, at least 500 Mexican federal police officers guarded the migrants, with local police, state police, and soldiers similarly tasked with maintaining security.

Despite Mexican agencies’ quick mobilization to install bathrooms and internet in the factory-turned-refugee camp, according to CBP’s reports, conditions remained poor: cramped, without privacy or proper sanitation facilities, and quickly overrun by various health risks.

According to attorneys, there were between 200 and 400 children inside the makeshift shelter. Health issues inside, according to CBP’s own reports, included a miscarriage, HIV, hepatitis B, skin fungus with open wounds, chicken pox, bronchitis, stomach issues, and colds.

Corralled into the squalid factory, some migrants burned their temporary Mexican visas in protest. And as actual asylum processing at the port of entry in Eagle Pass ground to a halt, an unknown number of migrants scaled the walls or otherwise escaped the factory to seek safety elsewhere.

The border town of Piedras Negras, similarly to others, struggles with safety and security problems due to its proximity to the U.S. and the fight over territory by numerous organized crime groups. Migrants and asylum-seekers are especially vulnerable. In 2011, just 45 minutes south of Piedras Negras, the Zetas organized crime syndicate massacred hundreds in the town of Allende. And in 2019, just an hour away from Piedras Negras in the town of Villa Unión, 23 people were killed during a confrontation between police and the Cártel del Noreste.

A CBP situational report noted that migrants felt like they were being “held like prisoners.”

Within less than a week of migrants being forced into the makeshift shelter, CBP officials reported knowledge of what they called a “riot” inside. On February 5, a situational report stated that the migrants were “very frustrated with not being let out. Additional [Mexican] military has recently shown up at the shelter.” The Texas National Guard, meanwhile, kept peering on from across the border, “deployed with body armor and binoculars.”

On February 6, a CBP situational report noted that migrants felt like they were being “held like prisoners.” That same day, the Coahuila Human Rights Commission “reminded officials that it is illegal to hold migrants against their will for more than 48 hours,” according to a CBP email from February 7. And yet the migrants were kept in the factory for another 11 days.

A February 9 CBP situational report noted that 47 unaccompanied minors were due to be deported back to Honduras from Mexico “since they have no family members in the US.” The presence of family members is not a requirement for seeking asylum in the United States and should have no bearing on a migrant’s claim to stay in Mexico. In at least one instance, CBP agents separated a family, processing a Guatemalan father and son separately, according to the documents.

While advocates and attorneys were largely barred from entering the makeshift shelter, CBP had an inside view, and a situational report from February 11 captured CBP’s willingness to overlook clear dangers. “No one has been released from the shelter as of today,” the report reads, and “for the most part, the situation at the shelter remains calm.” The same report, however, notes that “a deceased male subject was found directly behind the shelter buried in a shallow grave.” At least three bodies were found in the Rio Grande during a two-week period, according to press releases from the Maverick County Sheriff’s Department across the border and the CBP documents.

Central American migrants queue at a warehouse used as a shelter in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, Mexico on February 16, 2019. - Some 50 Central American migrants staying at a shelter in Piedras Negras, have already been accepted to begin their application for political asylum in the United States. President Donald Trump, repeating his claim that "walls work," announced Friday that he will declare a national emergency in order to build a barrier on the US-Mexico border without funding from Congress. (Photo by Julio César Aguilar / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Central American migrants and children wait while detained at a former factory in Piedras Negras, Mexico, on Feb. 16, 2019.

Photo: Julio César Aguilar/AFP via Getty Images

By February 14, CBP began referring to the migrants in the shelter as “detainees.” They also referred to them as “bodies.” Only a few migrants with visas provided by the Mexican government were allowed to periodically leave the facility. The INM itself began “metering its distribution of visitor cards” — temporary Mexican visas afforded to migrants heading to the United States — according to one email that cites the U.S. State Department.

A flyer that was created by Piedras Negras authorities and is included in a situational report features a map of the border and describes the town as its “most guarded” section. The flyer, circulated for migrants in custody to “share or post,” also stated that the U.S. had “shielded” the bridge at Eagle Pass and that the government had deployed more than 800 agents “to block the entry of migrants.”

Abundant evidence, including a 2020 Homeland Security report, shows that closing off ports of entry to migrants does not stop them from crossing but rather pushes them to try crossing the border elsewhere, often spiking profits for smuggling rings.

The internal CBP emails include multiple acknowledgments that the slowdown of asylum processing incentivized migrants to make increasingly desperate crossing attempts, even to collaborate with drug traffickers to get across the border. The documents admit that migrants wanted “to be free to travel to international bridges to begin their asylum procedures.” In other words, they wanted to follow the law.

Attorney Andrew Free, a human rights lawyer and transparency advocate, described the situation as “an international conspiracy to violate the principle of non-refoulement,” the primary pillar of asylum, which is a commitment not to not send anybody back into danger.

Central American migrants try to cross the Rio Bravo, from Piedras Negras, in Coahuila state, Mexico to the city of Eagle Pass, in Texas, US, as seen from Mexico on February 17, 2019. - Last week Trump invoked a "national emergency" to justify tapping military and other funds for barrier construction, after Congress approved less than a fourth the $5.7 billion he had sought for border security. A White House top adviser said Sunday that the president's emergency declaration could allow "hundreds of miles" of barriers to be built on the Mexican border before the 2020 election. (Photo by Julio Cesar AGUILAR / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Central American migrants try to cross the Rio Bravo from Piedras Negras, Mexico, to the city of Eagle Pass, Texas, on Feb. 17, 2019.

Photo: Julio César Aguilar/AFP via Getty Images

Safety’s Gauntlet

As many of the migrants were trapped inside the factory, their only hope — besides attempting a clandestine crossing — was a hastily concocted procedure of taking a number and waiting their turn to be permitted access to the port of entry.

The man in charge of organizing the list of migrants was Héctor Menchaca. Appointed by the Piedras Negras mayor to act as liaison between the migrants and CBP, Menchaca collected information from hundreds of migrants, delivered to him through WhatsApp. He acted as the point person for CBP during that time. In a January 15 email, Paul Del Rincon, the director of the Eagle Pass port of entry, wrote that Menchaca was the new “POC for anything and everything migrants.”

Menchaca continued to hold the title of chief of the Municipal Liaison Office up until he resigned last month; in that role, he attended weekly meetings with CBP, he told The Intercept in January. As of last September, Del Rincon remained the Eagle Pass port director. The assistant port director, Pete Macias, also remains in his position. CBP did not respond to questions about Menchacha, Del Rincon, and Macias.

For attorneys and advocates working on the border, the fact that a single person was responsible for this processing raises red flags. “Any time you make access to the U.S. immigration system go through a single person or organization, you’re giving that person enormous power,” said a migrant advocate present in 2019, who requested not be named for fear of retaliation.

Some of the Mexican officials watching over the migrants were part of Fuerza Coahuila, a body within the Coahuila State Police that has faced hundreds of complaints of human rights abuses, including forced disappearances. In the same year the caravan arrived to Piedras Negras, over 300 complaints involving human rights violations — including robbery, torture, and murder — were filed against Fuerza Coahuila. The Coahuila State Department of Public Security, which oversees the state police, did not respond to a request for comment.

But it was INM that was running operations. Migrants and human rights groups have continually raised concerns about elements of the Mexican immigration agency: 105 INM agents are currently being investigated for misconduct by the agency, and agents have been accused of turning over migrants to criminal smuggling networks. An INM communications official did not respond to The Intercept’s questions.

During the migrants’ time in Piedras Negras, Mexican officials and CBP were in near-constant contact, sharing “intelligence” on the migrants detained in the abandoned factory in Mexico. In the documents, CBP notes the exact numbers of migrants in the makeshift shelter and the number of migrants with alleged gang affiliations, as determined by INM. As Mexican officials were conducting “hotel sweeps” and “operations picking up migrants within the city,” they also allegedly identified three “caravan organizers” and shared the intel with CBP.

“The U.S. government was all too happy to see Mexico perform quick and dirty expulsions.”

According to the documents, Mexico also revoked the humanitarian visas it granted to some of the migrants not only if they attempted to cross into the United States but also if they merely approached the Rio Grande. Mexican security forces also staged multiple exercises with armed agents, temporarily shutting down border crossings into the United States in preparation for a possible “massive crossing of Central Americans.” Another email states that INM “stopped registering migrants after acknowledging that the humanitarian visitor card created a pull factor.” In other words, the Mexican government was prioritizing U.S. efforts to block asylum over the safety of migrants traveling through Mexico.

Mexican officials also arrested and transferred migrants away from the border and “deported” hundreds of them, according to the CBP documents. There is no indication in the records that Mexico was conducting anything resembling asylum interviews with the migrants before expelling them. “The U.S. government was all too happy to see Mexico perform quick and dirty expulsions,” Sawyer, of Human Rights Watch, said.

Besides the inherent cruelty of the actions taken against a vulnerable population, Shannon Fyfe, an assistant professor at George Mason University and expert in international law, told The Intercept that “crimes against humanity may have been committed against Central American migrants.”

Fyfe specified that “the documents suggest that these abuses were knowingly and systematically perpetrated, meaning that the government officials had both knowledge of the systematic nature of their actions, as well as the illegality of the particular acts they were committing.” Whether a court or government attempts to seek justice for the victims or accountability for the perpetrators of these possible crimes is unclear. What is clear is that similar actions, driven by near-identical policies, have become the de facto U.S. response to migration.

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