Jorge Dan Lopez / Reuters Ingrid Beatriz Palacios, 19, a Honduran citizen, sits next to her two-year-old son Kevin David during a stopover on their journey to northern Mexico and then to United States. They are in southern Mexico, June 26, 2014.

Brutal Borders

Mexico's Immigration Crackdown—And How the United States Funds It

First, gang members in Honduras murdered July Elizabeth Pérez’s brother and 14-year-old son—and then they came for her. So she gathered her three surviving children and fled, hoping to find sanctuary in the United States from the relentless violence. But she didn’t make it that far. Instead, she and the children were stopped in Mexico, where they languish in a shelter. She is hardly alone. Like her, thousands have been caught up in a crackdown on migrants that is partially funded by the United States.

In the summer of 2014, tens of thousands of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras streamed into the United States, capturing headlines. The political response to the “crisis” (in truth, the numbers of migrants had been growing since 2011) was swift. Republicans demanded tougher border control measures and put the final nail in the coffin of already stalled efforts at bipartisan immigration reform. Washington beefed up border security and revived family detention, the routine use of which it had halted in 2009 in response to an ACLU lawsuit and public outcry against detaining children in prison-like conditions. For those in detention, the Obama administration implemented a no-bond policy, which made it very difficult for families to be released while awaiting the resolution of their asylum claims. Meanwhile, instead of following standard procedures for determining whether individual migrants qualified for asylum or other protections guaranteed under international and domestic law, Washington expedited deportations. In all of this, the message was clear: Stay out.

As the numbers of Central American migrants decreased in the fall of 2014, their plight faded from the headlines. For its part, the Obama administration attributed the ebbing tide to its aggressive enforcement efforts (some of which spawned lawsuits, including against family detention, fast-tracked deportations, and inhumane conditions in the detention centers). The administration also touted initiatives south of the border, including radio ads urging parents not to let their children flee and the introduction of an in-country refugee application process for children, which has so far provided little relief. But perhaps its most sweeping program was to enlist Mexico’s help in keeping migrants from reaching U.S. borders in the first place. The Programa Frontera Sur (South Border Program) adopted by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto last July—and backed by millions of dollars in U.S. aid—is ostensibly aimed in part at protecting migrants, but is imperiling them instead. 

TAMING THE BEAST

Mexican immigration officials, assisted by the military and police, have stepped up enforcement and have started raiding flophouses and frequenting bus routes and railways favored by migrants. La Bestia (“the beast”), the train on which thousands of migrants used to stow away on their trip through Mexico, has been speeded up. Impediments have been erected to thwart boarding, and intermittent low barriers along the route make it treacherous to sit atop the cars. Migrants have dispersed to less traveled paths, where there are fewer safety nets, such as church-run shelters. Gangs and cartels have stepped in to take advantage of new, and even more lucrative opportunities to exploit vulnerable migrants. And so the journey, always harsh and perilous, is now even riskier, with many migrants sexually assaulted, robbed, extorted, or kidnapped.

People hoping to reach the U.S. ride atop the wagon of a freight train, known as La Bestia (The Beast) in Ixtepec, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, June 18, 2014.

People hoping to reach the U.S. ride atop the wagon of a freight train, known as La Bestia (The Beast) in Ixtepec, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, June 18, 2014.

When things do go wrong, going to the police seems futile at best and dangerous at worst, since many officers are complicit with smuggling or demand bribes. Those turned over to Mexican immigration authorities are rapidly deported, or face prolonged detention under abysmal conditions, including in overcrowded and unsanitary housing with inadequate food and health care. “Mexico has become a death trap for migrants, with vicious criminal gangs at every corner waiting for their opportunity to attack them for a few dollars,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International in a statement in June, “while authorities at the state and federal level are more eager to deport people than to save lives.” Indeed, migrant complaints have escalated: Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights received 567 abuse complaints against officials at the National Migration Institute in the year ending in June, which represents a 39 percent increase over the prior year.

Between January and July of this year, Mexico apprehended nearly 93,000 Central American migrants. That figure outpaced the United States’ by more than 20,000. The numbers are telling: Between January and July of this year, Mexico apprehended nearly 93,000 Central American migrants. That figure outpaced the United States’ by more than 20,000. The state is aggressively targeting children traveling alone; during the same period this year, Mexico apprehended 18,310 minors, an increase of more than 30 percent over the same time last year. In September, the Migration Policy Institute reported that the United States will likely cut its deportations to Central America by half this year. In contrast, Mexico is likely to deport 70 percent more.

If measured by the number migrants arriving at the U.S. border, Mexico’s programs could be counted as a success (despite a recent uptick in unaccompanied children apprehended in the United States). But the human cost is enormous. A 2014 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that nearly 60 percent of the children fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras may be in need of international protection because their home states have failed to protect them from violence and persecution. The Refugee Convention, to which the United States and Mexico are parties, recognizes the principle of non-refoulement, a prohibition against returning refugees to danger.

Women and their children wait in line to register at the Honduran Center for Returned Migrants after being deported from Mexico, in San Pedro Sula, northern Honduras June 20, 2014.

Women and their children wait in line to register at the Honduran Center for Returned Migrants after being deported from Mexico, in San Pedro Sula, northern Honduras June 20, 2014.

Mexico is also a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which requires states to make “the best interests of the child” their primary consideration. Under its treaty obligations, Mexico cannot arbitrarily detain minors, and is obligated to identify and safeguard the rights of children that qualify for asylum and other protections. Yet, according to an April 2015 report by the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute, Mexico’s interdiction efforts violate both international and domestic laws. The investigation found that children were routinely placed in detention, where they remained for prolonged periods, often in deplorable conditions, without any determination that such a placement was in their best interest. Immigration authorities consistently failed to inform children of their rights or to screen them to see if they needed international protection before repatriating them. Detained families fare little better.

The Obama administration should withhold aid designated for border security until Mexico ensures that migrants are protected from harm, appropriately screened, humanely housed, and given the legal protections guaranteed under law. Migrants’ chances of facing harm and hardship are high. And the prospects for success are incredibly low. Of the asylum seekers who remain in Mexico for the lengthy migration process (instead of being deported or leaving voluntarily), a mere 20 percent are successful. Last year, Mexico granted only 18 children asylum; it issued only 332 humanitarian visas, mostly to crime victims. Statistics are hard to come by, but an upcoming report by Elizabeth G. Kennedy, a Fulbright Fellow working on immigration issues, found that, since January 2014, at least 90 migrants deported by the United States and Mexico were subsequently murdered—which is likely only a fraction of the total. As Kennedy told the Guardian, “these figures tell us that the U.S. is returning people to their deaths in violation of national and international law.” That figure doesn’t include migrants killed en route or those who simply disappear.

SOUTHBOUND

Few argue that the conditions of rampant violence and endemic poverty in parts of Central America that pushed migrants north have eased. It’s not that fewer people are fleeing. Rather, stepped-up Mexican interdiction has forced the crisis south, decreasing the pressure on U.S. borders and politics.

A group of 43 women from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala cross Mexico on a journey called the

A group of 43 women from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala cross Mexico on a journey called the "Caravana de Madres Centroamericanas" (Caravan of Central American Mothers) following the route of the missing migrants. Pictured here in Mexico City, November 29, 2014.

U.S. politicians should not look the other way. Washington has provided more than $112 million in equipment to Mexico between 2009 and 2013 through the Merida Initiative, a plan to fight terrorism and drug trafficking and to bolster border security, which relies heavily on militarization. Last year, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement pledged more than $86 million to Mexico for “mobile non-intrusive inspection equipment and related equipment and training for Mexico’s southern border strategy,” according to a Congressional Research Service report. And Congress added nearly $80 million to the Obama administration’s 2015 fiscal year request for the Merida Initiative.

In total, the United States has sent nearly $3 billion in security aid to Mexico since 2008, despite clear evidence that the war on drugs is fueling the violence in that country, which has left 100,000 dead and more than 25,000 missing. In October of this year, Washington finally used the power of the purse to signal its disapproval of Mexico’s disregard for human rights by withholding $5 million in funds. According to Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy, the impact is questionable. “The Merida Initiative withholding shows the U.S. government speaking out of both sides of its mouth. Five million dollars are held up in the name of human rights just after Congress appropriated an additional tens of millions for the same Mexican security forces that commit the violations,” she says, and “It’s illogical to think that’s real pressure—they’re laughing all the way to the bank.”

Still, the Obama administration should withhold aid designated for border security until Mexico ensures that migrants are protected from harm, appropriately screened, humanely housed, and given the legal protections guaranteed under law. Until then, Pérez is terrified that if she is deported to Honduras, the gangs that have doggedly pursued her will find her and follow through with their threats to kill her. The United States and Mexico should ensure that she and her children do not become grim statistics.

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