Humanitarian Disgrace: Human Rights First Blasts Ongoing Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Policies Targeting Asylum Seekers

WASHINGTON – In a new report, Human Rights First details the disgraceful abuse of the human rights of refugees at the U.S. southern border. The Trump administration continues to expel and return to danger families, children and adults seeking protection in the United States – delivering some to escalating violence in Mexico and others to the very governments that had persecuted them.

The report “Humanitarian Disgrace: U.S. Continues to Illegally Block, Expel Refugees to Danger” found repeated violations of U.S. legal and treaty obligations meant to protect refugees. Returned families, children and adults are being sent to highly dangerous situations where many suffered kidnappings, attacks, sexual assaults, threats and other incredible cruelty. Border and immigration officials are blocking, expelling and returning people seeking U.S. humanitarian protections to danger under the pretext of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) orders issued at the instruction of White House officials, over the objections of the CDC’s own senior experts and which were discredited by leading public health experts, who have urged they be rescinded.

“Continuing to turn away and expel people seeking U.S. refugee protection at the southern border is both a humanitarian disgrace and a legal travesty,” said Kennji Kizuka senior researcher for refugee protection at Human Rights First and lead author of the report. “Instead of upholding this country’s values and laws, the Trump administration is continuing to cause more chaos, cruelty and disorder at the border with its illegal, dangerous and counterproductive policies. The Trump administration is flouting U.S. laws and treaty obligations to protect refugees, and weaponizing the pandemic to block and expel people seeking safety in the United States.

“As human rights defenders, we urge the Biden administration to rescind the specious CDC order, the perversely-named Migrant Protection Protocols, and all policies that endanger and block from fair asylum assessments for families, adults and children seeking U.S. protection. As public health experts have repeatedly made clear, the U.S. government is capable of both safeguarding public health during the pandemic and upholding U.S. commitments to protect people seeking safety.”

Human Rights First has been working to track violence against asylum seekers returned to Mexico through its “Delivered to Danger” project since the beginning of the Trump administration’s “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) – also known as the Remain in Mexico policy. As of December 2020, the project – which tracks reports of journalists, human rights monitors, and HRF’s own research – has identified more than 1,300 public reports of violent attacks on asylum seekers and migrants returned to Mexico and forced to wait there in danger under MPP.  People with pending cases subjected to this horrific program include 6,463 Cubans, 5,422 Hondurans, 3,979 Guatemalans, 2,142 Ecuadorians, 1,408 Venezuelans, 1,397 Salvadorans, 813 Nicaraguans, and 445 Brazilians.

Key findings of Human Rights First’s report include:

  • The Trump administration is turning away and expelling refugees at the border using debunked public health claims that senior CDC experts rejected. In issuing its initial March 2020 order, CDC cited DHS claims that it needed to avoid holding asylum seekers and migrants in custody and that DHS lacked capacity to conduct testing. Yet DHS is detaining asylum seekers in border facility cells and immigration jails for days or weeks in order to expel them when they test negative for COVID-19. Border Patrol detained a two-year-old Haitian boy and his asylum-seeking parents for nearly three weeks in September before ultimately releasing them.
  • Those expelled under the CDC order include prominent dissidents flown back to Nicaragua where they were detained by the very authorities that had initially jailed and tortured them; a transgender Honduran asylum seeker expelled to Mexico; Ethiopian and other African asylum seekers expelled to Tijuana despite requesting refugee protection in the United States; a pregnant Honduran asylum seeker expelled to Mexico while experiencing contractions even though she had been repeatedly raped there; a Nicaraguan asylum seeker, who having been hospitalized for dialysis, was expelled to Mexico in a hospital gown without socks, shoes, or underwear; and a Guatemalan asylum seeker, who after being kidnapped for a month in Mexico, was beaten by a U.S. border agent with a baton while being expelled to Nogales, Mexico.
  • The CDC order is also being used by the administration to block asylum seekers from requesting protection at ports of entry, pushing some to undertake dangerous crossings, including a Cuban man presumed dead since July 2020 when he attempted to cross the Texas desert to seek protection. Many asylum seekers – including from Burundi, Cameroon, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela – are waiting in Mexico, blocked from even requesting asylum due to the CDC order.
  • As of September 2020, the administration has used the CDC order to expel at least 8,800 unaccompanied children and likely as many as 14,000, including some as young as five, as well as a 12-year-old Guatemalan asylum seeker with physical and learning disabilities expelled to Guatemala while his mother waited in Mexico under MPP and a 15-year-old asylum seeker, expelled back to Guatemala after fleeing sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.
  • DHS continues to return asylum seekers to Mexico under MPP where they face escalating and life-threatening danger, including an LGBT Cuban woman returned under MPP in August 2020 who had been repeatedly sexually assaulted in Cuba because of her sexual orientation. As of December 15, 2020, Human Rights First has tracked 1,314 incidents of murder, rape, kidnapping, torture, and assault. But this is likely a significant undercount as the overwhelming majority of returned people have not spoken with human rights investigators or journalists (COVID-19-related restrictions have further limited reporting). Of the reported attacks, 317 were kidnappings or attempted kidnappings of children.
  • Violence in Mexico—and the dangers of harm facing asylum seekers forced back there—is on the rise. The country’s homicide rate for 2020 is likely to be the highest in decades. Drug cartels have reportedly taken advantage of the pandemic and reductions in security operations, including in the state of Tamaulipas, where tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been returned under MPP.
  • DHS is expelling and turning back asylum seekers to danger without providing access to asylum adjudications or the fear screenings required under U.S. law. Purported torture screenings for CDC expulsions are virtually non-existent. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) referred only 85 out of more than 43,000 migrants expelled under the CDC order for screening through May. Since the start of the pandemic, CBP has denied fear interviews to the vast majority of people in MPP who face harm in Mexico. Between April and October 2020, only 1,159 people placed in MPP were screened – just seven percent of the total screenings in the eight months before the CDC order.
  • There are approximately 23,000 pending MPP cases, leaving many asylum seekers returned to Mexico under MPP waiting indefinitely in danger in the wake of the COVID-19 closure of immigration courts. Seventy percent of those with postponed MPP hearings will have been waiting in Mexico for one year or more by January 2021.

Human Rights First called on the incoming Biden administration to uphold U.S. laws and commitments to protect refugees by rescinding the CDC order and ending MPP.

“Instead of endangering and turning its back on people seeking humanitarian protection, the U.S. government should employ measures recommended by public health experts, such as distancing and masks, health screenings, testing, and use of non-congregate settings to safely and expeditiously process asylum seekers at the border. Under existing legal authority, asylum seekers can be paroled to shelter with family and friends while they wait for their U.S. asylum adjudications,” said Kizuka. “The United States is a global leader and should set a strong example for the many countries around the world that host the vast majority of the world’s refugees. The next administration is more than capable of figuring out how to end these policies, bring their victims into safety, and uphold U.S. values, laws and treaty commitments.”

Read Human Rights First’s recommendations to the incoming Biden administration to uphold refugee protection.


Published on December 16, 2020


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