The result is a continuation of dehumanizing and dangerous conditions on the border, with less public scrutiny than ever.
Crisis at the border
During my research for a 2019 documentary, “
Waylaid in Tijuana
,” I observed firsthand the difficult conditions facing thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers who were stranded at the U.S.-Mexico border well before the pandemic.
But in April 2018, the Trump administration began
by requiring that they get on a waiting list for their initial appointment with U.S. officials. By August 2019, 25,000 people
were on the list
, mostly in Tijuana. In February 2020, just before the global pandemic was declared, 15,000 people were still waiting.
Nine months after metering began, the Trump administration introduced the
Migration Protection Protocols
, which require asylum-seekers who pass their initial interview to return to Mexico to wait for each subsequent court hearing. By March 2020,
over 65,000 asylum-seekers
had been returned to Mexico, mostly through ports of entry in Texas.
Under pressure from the Trump administration, the
Mexican government acceded
to this policy, giving asylum-seekers the right to wait for their interview in Mexico. Migrants in the caravans that arrived in late 2018 and early 2019 were also given a special work permit.
But the Mexican government has since
drastically curtailed these permits
, and today’s migrants receive almost no government support. The lucky ones find food and lodging at a church-run migrant shelter, an informal job waiting tables or working construction and access to health care and legal counsel through local or U.S.-based nonprofit organizations.
Most migrants are not so lucky. Shelters cannot keep up with the demand, leaving thousands on the streets or in tent camps with no plumbing or electricity,
especially along the Texas border
. Asylum-seekers outside the shelters rarely have access to social assistance or legal counsel.
Asylum-seekers are also targeted by criminals and local police for extortion, mugging,
kidnapping and assault
– adding another layer of trauma to the violence suffered back home and
along their journey
. During the interviews with asylum-seekers conducted for “Waylaid in Tijuana,” my colleagues and I could see the fear and anxiety in their body language.
Barred by the pandemic
These two policies – the metering system and the Migration Protection Protocols – had vastly reduced Central American migrants’ chances of gaining asylum in the U.S. even before the pandemic. As of August 2020,
only 570 of the 44,000 asylum-seekers
sent back to Mexico whose cases had been decided were granted refuge in the U.S. That’s an approval rate of 1.3%, compared with
21% in 2018
for asylum-seekers from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The pandemic has now enabled the Trump administration to
effectively end asylum
as an avenue for Central Americans to legally enter the United States.
That puts even more pressure on Mexico’s already
, many of which stopped taking new residents or closed down completely when the pandemic hit.
And with much of Mexico’s economy on lockdown, jobs are nearly impossible to find. A
recent International Labor Organization report
finds Mexico lost 10.4 million informal jobs during the first two months of the pandemic, particularly in areas like hospitality and construction that used to employ migrants.
Despite the obvious health risks, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol continues to require that migrants
check in regularly at ports of entry
to keep their asylum cases active. Yet
mean U.S.-based aid workers and lawyers are unable to cross the border to help their clients.