'Remain in Mexico' is another brick in Trump’s invisible wall

Now that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE has done everything he can to eliminate asylum access on the U.S. border, he is attempting to enlist Mexico’s newly minted President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in a comprehensive scheme to block asylum seekers from gaining protection in the United States. Recent reports of negotiations over a “remain in Mexico” plan indicate that this bilateral agreement would keep asylum seekers in Mexico while U.S. immigration courts consider and adjudicate their asylum claims.

UN agencies, international human rights organizations, and even U.S. government agencies have produced overwhelming evidence of the humanitarian crisis that is causing many Central Americans to flee. The violence inflicted by the gangs in Central America, and the utter failure of their governments to protect them leave these individuals and families with no choice but to flee.

I have interviewed hundreds of families who fled from gang violence and domestic abuse that their governments could not stop. I represented a mother who fled with her young children after one of her daughters was abducted and dismembered, and her body parts began to appear at the family’s door steps with notes that said in short, “leave, or this same fate will happen to each of your children.” I also represented a father who fled after being forced to watch at gunpoint as his daughters and wife were gang-raped by four armed men as retribution for the report he made to the local police department that he was being threatened and extorted by the gangs.

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Although the negotiations for the “remain in Mexico” plan are still ongoing, forcing individuals who are seeking humanitarian protection in the United States to remain in Mexico contravenes U.S. asylum law and is a radical departure from long-established border procedures. Not every person arriving at our southern border is eligible for asylum, but U.S. law grants each person the right to seek asylum. This right would be denied to thousands of people if “remain in Mexico” goes into effect.

Reps. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), David Price (D-N.Y.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who sit on the powerful Foreign Affairs and Appropriations Committees, brought the concerns to the Trump administration in a letter sent a few days after reports of the plan because public. The representatives expressed grave concerns for the “lives and freedoms” of asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico “for indefinite periods of time in dangerous conditions” and urged President Trump not to enter into agreements with other governments that “violate our nation’s laws and undermine American values.”

The longstanding principle of non-refoulement forbids the U.S. government from expelling asylum seekers while they wait to have their cases decided by U.S. immigration courts. If implemented, the “Remain in Mexico” plan would have precisely that effect, endangering the lives of the asylum seekers we as a nation have pledged to protect. 

Forced to live in temporary housing in the border cities of Mexico, migrants fleeing violence and persecution are far more susceptible to further victimization. They face serious risks of kidnappings, disappearances, sexual assaults, trafficking, and other harms in Mexico. In fact, a 2017 study conducted by Human Rights First reported 5,289 crimes against migrants in Mexico and found that sexual assault against migrant girls is often normalized and deemed part of the “price” these girls pay to migrate. Asylum seekers would also have far more difficulty gathering evidence and finding an attorney in Mexico, making it much less likely they will be able to show just how desperately they need protection.

Instead of pursuing the “Remain in Mexico” plan, the Trump administration should strengthen refugee resettlement programs in the Central American region, increase foreign aid to the Central American region to help combat gang and gender-based violence, and support anti-corruption initiatives. These long-term solutions would address the root causes of violence and instability compelling people to flee.

The United States should not depart from established asylum and humanitarian law. We must continue to be the beacon of light and hope for those fleeing violence and persecution.

Leidy Perez-Davis is policy counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and was previously an immigration staff attorney at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Washington.