At the end of August, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to restore a Trump-era policy that forces people seeking asylum at the U.S. Mexico border to stay in Mexico. Informally called the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, its restoration stemmed from lawsuits filed in two US states earlier this year.
A district judge of Texas ruled that the Biden Administration violated the law by scrapping the programme which was in effect in 2019 and 2020 that forced non-Mexicans to stay in Mexico while their asylum applications were processed. The reasoning behind this was the argument that releasing migrants into the US puts a burden on states as migrants use state services. In many cases, it can take years before an asylum application is decided upon. This results in many migrants with no choice but to cross the border illegally.
While scores of asylum seekers are opting to take the dangerous chance of crossing the border, more and more are deciding to settle in Mexico. The decision to stay is influenced by the surge of undocumented migration and the fact that asylum is easier to achieve in Mexico. Asylum seekers are enticed by the opportunity to reunite with family and friends and for the possibilities of work. Mexico is no longer a second option for asylum seekers.
The rate of applications and the approval rate of these applications is increasing over the last number of years. 2021 saw a 50% increase in applications compared to 2020. In January and February 2021, application numbers reached 13,500. In 2020, from the number of cases processed, Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR approved 79% of the cases. The top nationalities receiving protection in Mexico are from Honduras, Venezuela, Cuba, El Salvador and Guatemala although Mexico has also seen an uptick in asylum requests from Haitians and other extra-continental migrants.
While Mexico has improved its reception and processing capacity, asylum seekers continue to face significant obstacles in accessing protection. There is a 30 day wait from the first entry into the country to request asylum which is coupled with security concerns along the border and the susceptibility of vulnerable people to be exploited. COMAR does not have a presence at the ports of entry to Mexico which means that asylum seekers who present claims at the border may be detained by Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM). To avoid this, most asylum seekers try to travel undetected to towns close to the border to present themselves to COMAR. This increases their risk of being susceptible to kidnapping, sexual assault and robbery. The detention conditions are known for their lack of services, poor food and healthcare and overcrowding. Some asylum seekers stop pursuing their applications to be released. Often, migrants are not informed of their right to seek protection. A monitoring mission carried out by the INM’s citizen council of migrant detention centres in 2016 found that the primary focus of INM agents is on the detection, detention, and deportation of migrants. The majority of the detainees interviewed at the centers reported never having received information about their right to apply for asylum or that the information was not clear.
The U.S. policy turmoil and Mexico’s already strained asylum system has meant that Mexico has faced increased challenges and concerns in supporting asylum seekers. COMAR is supported by international organisations such as UNHCR to expand their offices and loaning personnel to support registration and case processing. While the agency’s budget for 2021 is likely to be $4.85 million, more than double its $2.35 million budget for 2020, more investment is needed to address staffing limitations and expand its presence beyond the 8 cities where it currently has offices. In January 2021, legal reforms went into effect prohibiting immigration detention for unaccompanied and accompanied migrant children in Mexico.
Immigration cases will be resolved according to the best interest of the child to be determined by Child Protection Officers, instead of the INM. Unaccompanied children and children with families should be referred to shelters to await interviews and a resolution that could instruct INM to repatriate the migrants, to refer them to COMAR to apply for refugee status, or to provide immigration documents for residence in Mexico. In some cases, Child Protection Officers will determine that it is in the child’s best interest to be reunified with family members in another country. The new procedures will help guarantee protection for migrant children, increase access to the asylum system and decrease the use of smugglers and extortion by INM and other authorities in Mexico.