Worse than a wall: Trapping asylum seekers in Mexico

Worse than a wall: Trapping asylum seekers in Mexico
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This week, a tweet from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE referred to due process in life or death immigration cases as “a whole big wasted procedure.”

When someone fleeing for her life shows up on the border of the United States, our nation should offer protection instead of looking to shirk our humanitarian obligations. However, the administration increasingly seems interested in gutting longstanding protections for the world’s most vulnerable people.


U.S. law gives families who present themselves at ports of entry along the border the right to apply for asylum in the United States. If they are able to show that they would likely be persecuted if returned to their home country, the United States may grant them legal immigration status subject to rigorous security clearances and other limitations. This is a policy built on the memory of Jewish refugees rejected at our borders and killed in the Holocaust.


Now, the administration wants legislation to set quotas for asylum and make it harder to qualify. Even before this week, Department of Homeland Security officials had mentioned ongoing negotiations with the Mexican government to find new ways to turn people away.

This includes a new “safe third country” treaty that would require many people arriving at the border from Mexico, including those who have merely traveled through Mexico on their way to the United States, to apply for asylum in Mexico instead. Another proposal would force people fleeing for their lives to wait in limbo in Mexico instead of the United States while their asylum cases move through the U.S. legal system.

The legal challenges these ideas pose are substantial. What is sometimes lost in the legal arguments, however, is the human argument.

For many people around the world, the only way they can get close enough to the United States to plead for help is to travel to somewhere south of the border and then journey north. Settling in Mexico or returning home is not a realistic option in many of these cases.

Take for example people fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation. While there have been individual victories for gay rights in Mexico, especially in educated urban communities, that does not mean it is a safe place for LGBTQ foreigners without a support network. 

As an immigration attorney, I see this every day. 

One of my clients lived it. He is a young man from West African who found himself in the nightmare of squeezing out a window while his family debated how best to kill him. After carefully hiding their relationship, my client and his boyfriend had finally been caught in a culture that said better dead than gay.

He ran for his life to the first country that would admit him without a lengthy visa process — certainly not the United States. He arrived in Ecuador and set out north through a series of countries with chilling human rights records.

Along the way, he was assaulted, robbed, and traumatized. He still freezes in place and says, “I can’t talk about it,” when asked about the journey.

In preparing him for his asylum hearing in immigration court, I asked him a standard question: Why did he not stop and ask for asylum in Mexico?

He just stared at me as if I were insulting his intelligence.

I prodded, giving him the typical attorney line that I needed him to articulate his thoughts even if they seemed obvious. 

His answer was one I hear often: He was not safe in Mexico. He was a black gay man who could not speak Spanish alone in a homophobic country. He got out as fast as he could. He was not safe, he said again and again. Then he went quiet.  

He would often end those meetings with whispers that he would rather die than be deported, eyes dark and downturned. He meant it.

Now, after winning his asylum case, he tells me how much he loves his job and how proud he is of passing his driving test. He smiles a lot more. 

I asked him the other day what he would have done if he had been forced to stay in Mexico. His answer was brief, words tumbling over each other.

“I couldn’t. It’s impossible. You can’t imagine. I would have died,” he said.

Instead, thanks to humane asylum policies, he is very much alive.

Elizabeth Gibson is an immigration attorney at the nonprofit New York Legal Assistance Group in New York City and an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow. She also serves on the Steering Committee of the International Migrants Bill of Rights Initiative.