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Border Report: The Asylum Process Is in Limbo

A man from Honduras and his 1-year old daughter rest in Tijuana on April 29, 2018, before a caravan of Central American migrants walked to the U.S.-Mexico border crossing to ask for asylum. / Photo by David Maung

The pandemic has effectively ended asylum as we knew it.

Border officials have stopped processing asylum-seekers at the ports of entry who’d already been forced to wait months for interviews. Under a presidential public health order, border officials have also been able to turn back asylum-seekers, including minors, who try to cross between ports of entry.

Even asylum-seekers who were already enrolled in the Migration Protection Protocols program, which required them to wait in Mexico, are now indefinitely stuck as their court hearings get postponed due to the pandemic.

“We thought with the pandemic we would have a little bit of respite from horrible policies targeting asylum-seekers, but they continue,” immigration attorney Tammy Lin said.

Many of the already limited numbers of asylum-seekers who had managed to find work and rent a small apartment have lost their jobs. Some have ended up homeless, and many shelters for migrants are at capacity. Still others struggle to access health care in Mexico, an urgent concern amid a pandemic.

Lin said she’s increasingly concerned as winter approaches, since housing has been in such short supply for asylum-seekers stuck in Mexico.

“It’s been quite a bit of a challenge for anyone waiting there,” Jewish Family Service supervising immigration attorney Luis Gonzalez said. “Asylum-seekers at the border are in limbo because they don’t know what will happen with their case. The Migrant Protection Protocols program was supposed to expedite their cases, and now they’re in an even more vulnerable place. Before it was because of security concerns in Mexico, now it’s both security concerns and the pandemic, with people being in situations where they don’t have access to health care.”

In the meantime, Gonzalez said his organization has gotten calls from several Cuban families over the past four to six weeks who claim to be enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols after crossing between ports of entry near Mexicali instead of being sent back without any hope of having their asylum process started. While the program still has its problems, Gonzalez said, at least those families have their asylum processes pending for when the courts start the hearings again.

That’s how dire things have gotten: Being enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols is no longer the worst-case scenario for asylum-seekers.

“A big concern from any person with any sense of humanity is the fact that the U.S. has used COVID as an excuse to basically stop immigration,” Lin said.

A New Way of Understanding Violence in Mexico

Cecilia Farfán Méndez and Michael Lettieri at the University of California San Diego’s Center for U.S. Mexican Studies want to complicate the narratives around violence in Mexico.

Their new initiative, the Mexico Violence Resource Project [3], aims to do just that, by providing policymakers, journalists and others more nuanced analysis and information on what is driving criminal activity and violence in the country.

“I’m a historian by training, which means I tend to think how we tell stories really matters,” Lettieri said. “I had come to this realization that the story we were telling about violence in Mexico was not only missing a lot of what would happen, but make it harder to come up with new strategies to address the violence. Where experts had bits of nuance or understood things better, there was something that didn’t get put into the narrative and didn’t get put into a format where the general public could engage with those ideas.”

For example, Farfán Méndez said, the discussions around the so-called “kingpin strategy,” where the government focuses on arresting high-level leaders, are very different among Mexican scholars than in the general public. The public tends to think that the arrests of high-level criminals is a good tactic, but the research shows that the outcomes have varied. Sometimes it decreases violence and sometimes it doesn’t, or even makes it worse.

The project’s website serves as a database [4], maintaining updated and aggregated facts and statistics about homicides, missing people, judicial records and firearm information. It will also feature original interviews, essays and analysis about the causes of violence and strategies for peacebuilding.

The first piece of original content is an examination of the events of Oct. 17, 2019 [5], in Culiacán. After Mexican government forces detained Ovidio Guzmán, one of the sons of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, members of the Sinaloa Cartel took to the streets with high-powered weapons, forcing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to release Guzmán. Many classified the incident as a catastrophic defeat for the government, but the analysis from the Mexico Violence Resource Project suggests a more nuanced interpretation of the impact of those events.

“This isn’t just about shootouts that make headlines,” Lettieri said. “It’s about what caused it and what came after, because if you don’t understand the whole picture you won’t be able to solve the problem.”

Farfán Méndez and Lettieri also gave me a teaser about some of the special projects we can expect from the Mexico Violence Resource Project moving forward. One will examine how academics get their information and research about violence and the criminal underworld. The other will look at journalism, particularly foreign journalism in Mexico.

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