Human Rights Watch in a new report Wednesday urged President-elect Joe Biden to "quickly and decisively" end a two-year-old policy under which tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been forced to stay in squalid and often dangerous makeshift shelters in Mexico.
The report, titled "'Like I'm Drowning': Children and Families Sent to Harm by the U.S. 'Remain in Mexico' Program," includes interviews with several children and adults who have faced abduction, extortion, rape, and other violence—often at the hands of immigration officers or Mexican police—under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), commonly called "Remain in Mexico."
Under the policy, the Trump administration has sent about 69,000 asylum seekers, many of whom have fled political and gang violence in their home countries in Central and South America, to Mexican cities including Ciudad Juárez, Mexicali, and Matamoros. Ciudad Juárez has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
The violence many of the the report's 52 interview subjects describe should have been anticipated by the Trump administration, Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior children’s rights counsel at Human Rights Watch (HRW) and author of the report, said in a statement.
"'Remain in Mexico' has needlessly and foreseeably exposed children and adults to a high risk of violence and other harm," said Bochenek.
Two women identified as Berenice and Cecilia described an attack they faced after being told by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents that they and their young children were being sent to Ciudad Juárez to await their court dates, which were three months away.
While the two women and their children waited together for Cecilia's sister to call them back, four men attacked them. "It was clear from what they were saying they wanted to rape us," Cecilia said. "One grabbed me. Another one grabbed my friend. We started to scream. Some people came up and helped drive the men off. The children were completely traumatized."
After the women attempted to travel ten hours to Nogales, two men who identified themselves as agents with the National Migration Institute accused them of unlawfully attempting another crossing into the U.S. and threatened to deport them if they didn't pay the men.
When Cecilia opened her purse to show them what she had, they took everything she had, about 2,500 pesos (US$120) and let them return to the bus. More than 20 months later, they and their children are still waiting in Mexico; they have only had preliminary hearings on their requests for asylum in the United States.
Bochenek told The Guardian that the stories told by Cecilia, Berenice, and dozens of others left him "completely devastated about what the U.S. government was doing to people."
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many asylum seekers are facing even more time in shelters, where children and adults have reported sexual abuse, violent attacks, robberies by police officers, and inadequate access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation.
MPP hearings are currently been postponed since the public health crisis was declared a pandemic in March 2020, with some hearings delayed until May or June of this year. With the ever-growing delays, Catholic Legal Immigration Network attorney Tania Guerrero told HRW, "People are telling me, 'MPP kills us from the inside out.'"
With two weeks left in the Trump administration, HRW called on Biden to immediately end the program, as the president-elect pledged to do on Day One of his administration during his campaign.
— José Miguel Vivanco (@JMVivancoHRW) January 6, 2021
US' "Remain in Mexico" program has sent >69,000 asylum seekers, including children of all ages, to Mexico to await their hearings. There, they face serious harm, including rape, abduction for ransom, and extortion. @JoeBiden should end the program asap. https://t.co/XCnSb0olYL pic.twitter.com/fOQp04fSuN
— Jo Becker (@jobeckerhrw) January 6, 2021
The report, however, comes two weeks after two of Biden's top incoming aides, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, told the Spanish newswire service EFE that asylum seekers and advocates should temper their expectations for the Day One termination of the program that Biden promised.
"Putting the new policy into practice will take time," Sullivan said, while Rice advised asylum seekers not to believe "those in the region peddling the idea that the border will be fully open to process everyone on day one" of the new administration.
In its report, HRW urged Biden and his advisers to see the end of Trump's presidency as "an opportunity for a badly needed reset of US asylum policies."
"Among other urgent steps, the Biden administration should revert to the global norm of allowing asylum seekers to remain in the country where their claims are heard. In line with the president-elect’s campaign promises, the Biden administration should immediately terminate the MPP program and cease all returns of asylum seekers to Mexico."