Kidnapped, Raped, and Robbed: Dangerous Title 42 Expulsions to Mexico Continue
By Julia Neusner
Karina* and her three-year-old daughter fled Honduras after the gang member who had raped her threatened to traffic her daughter. As they walked out of a shop in Tijuana last year, a man put a pistol to Karina’s back, ordered her and her daughter into a car, and placed hoods over their heads. When they arrived at a decrepit house outside the city, the armed men chained Karina to a wall with other captive people. Over the course of ten terrifying days in captivity, multiple men raped Karina in a separate room. When at last her husband managed to pay ransom, Karina’s captors released her with her daughter, warning them that if they ever saw them again, they’d kill them. The terrified mother and daughter immediately boarded a bus to another part of the border. When they crossed into Texas to ask for asylum in March 2021, the United States government flew them to San Diego and expelled them in Tijuana, the same city where they’d been kidnapped and assaulted. They do not leave their shelter, fearing for their lives.
Just this past week, a Cuban asylum seeker who’d been returned to Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) was shot to death in Ciudad Juárez. Although the Biden administration has stopped returning asylum seekers to Mexico under MPP and has begun to transit some people subjected to that program into the United States, it has at the same time continued the Trump administration’s deadly practice of sending people seeking U.S. protection, like Karina and her daughter, to danger under Title 42. Under the Title 42 expulsion policy – the most sweeping ban on asylum at the border in U.S. history – the U.S. government is blocking and expelling asylum seekers under the pretext of protecting public health. But public health experts have repeatedly said that Title 42 expulsions do not protect public health. The policy does, however, endanger those seeking protection and enrich the criminal networks who prey on them. Human Rights First has tracked more than 492 public reports of assaults, rapes, kidnappings, and other violent attacks against asylum seekers impacted by Title 42 since the Biden administration took office.
Last month at the border, I saw the human consequences of this policy. With assistance from Al Otro Lado and Haitian Bridge Alliance, I interviewed more than 110 asylum seekers in Tijuana who have been blocked from entering the U.S. or expelled under Title 42. Many are living in a makeshift 2,000-person tent encampment near the San Ysidro port of entry, where they have been kidnapped and threatened by gang members. Others are in shelters, terrified to go outside for fear of encountering their persecutors.
The U.S. government is delivering those expelled under Title 42 straight into the hands of criminal organizations, who extort their family members in the United States for ransom. Nearly a quarter of the fifty families I interviewed who had been expelled under Title 42 had been kidnapped in Mexico—often after the U.S. government transferred them hundreds of miles by bus or plane for expulsion in unfamiliar border cities far from where they’d entered. A Honduran father and his two-year-old son were kidnapped immediately after the U.S. government expelled them to Juarez in March 2021. When the father and son attempted to enter Texas again to request protection, the U.S. government flew them 1,500 miles to San Diego and expelled them in Tijuana. Immediately after the U.S. government expelled a Guatemalan family with two young children to Nogales, Mexico in December 2020, armed men kidnapped them and demanded a $15,000 ransom for their release. Border Patrol agents had transferred the family 17 hours by bus from where they had entered Texas to request asylum. When their captors released them, they put them on a bus to Tijuana, where they were still waiting in fear when I met them in April 2021.
Asylum seekers blocked and expelled under Title 42 are also vulnerable to being trafficked by Mexican criminal networks. An Indigenous Mexican woman who was kidnapped and trafficked around Mexico escaped her traffickers after she became pregnant. Her baby suffered from health issues due to the abuse and malnourishment she suffered in captivity and died while she was waiting in a Tijuana shelter for asylum processing to resume. She then had to move shelters after the traffickers located her in March 2021. The stories continue. A gay Central American man, after fleeing persecution for his sexual orientation, was abducted and sold to traffickers, who forced him to perform sex acts around Mexico for months. After escaping his captors, he’s spent more than eight months hiding in a shelter at the border, blocked from entering the United States to request asylum and terrified the traffickers will find him if he ventures outside.
Several people told me that Mexican police refused to investigate kidnappings and attacks against them or were complicit in their perpetration. A Honduran mother with three young boys recalled being kidnapped by Mexican police in Reynosa at the end of March 2021. Police ordered her and other families onto a bus, then sold the busload of people to a cartel, who held them captive until her family paid ransom. Badly shaken, she and her children crossed the U.S. border to seek asylum. The U.S. expelled them back to Mexico. Another Honduran woman told me that the police robbed her family in Ciudad Juárez in early February 2021. “They came inside the place we were staying and took us outside. They made us take out our bags, then they took everything—money, our cell phones. They said they were going to deport us back to our country. We are always afraid. It’s been very painful.”
Haitian and other Black asylum seekers face racial discrimination and violence in Mexico. In Tijuana, Haitian asylum seekers reported discrimination and harassment by other people waiting to seek asylum and service providers in the tent encampment. One Haitian man living in the tent encampment was robbed at gunpoint in January 2021. Another had been forced to move into the encampment in February after his landlord broke into the room he was renting and stole everything he owned. Another Haitian woman had been expelled to Tijuana after attempting to cross the border in February 2021. When I met her in April 2021, she was still sick and in pain after suffering a miscarriage in November 2020. She was unable to obtain prenatal care during her pregnancy, and when she miscarried, no hospital would admit her. “I was suffering a lot. Nobody would help me,” she said.
In the Tijuana tent encampment, misinformation abounds. Asylum seekers desperate to enter the United States believe false rumors—often perpetrated by U.S. and Mexican immigration officers—that those physically closest to the port of entry will be among the first to enter the United States if the Biden administration rescinds the Title 42 expulsion policy. One Haitian asylum seeker told me that a Mexican man living in the encampment had tried to rob him, threatening to beat him with a rock. Though a Haitian Bridge Alliance staff member offered the man assistance to find shelter accommodations, he chose to stay in the encampment anyway because he wanted to be next to the border the moment the Biden administration resumes asylum processing.
Mexican asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable, trapped in the very country they are trying to flee. A Mexican grandmother fled to the border with her nine young grandchildren and their mothers after gang members had murdered the woman’s two sons on the doorstep of the family home. They’d also shot her two-year-old granddaughter, who had been standing outside with her father. The bullet passed through her body and out her arm. The grandmother called the little girl over to show me the scars. “They said they’d kill me too, so we left.” The family has been hiding in a Tijuana shelter, waiting for U.S. asylum processing to resume, for more than a month. Another Mexican grandmother told me a cartel had killed her husband, daughter, and son. They took over her house, forcing her to flee with her two grandchildren before they had time to gather anything for the trip.
In the tent encampment, some Mexican asylum seekers refused to leave their tents, frightened at the prospect that they might be seen by gang members patrolling the area. One father had been beaten nearly to death by gang members that were trying to recruit his sons in Michoacán. “The same gang that was after us back home operates here,” he told me, trembling. He and his sons were so afraid to go outside that they used the bathroom in buckets inside their tent. A trans woman from Chiapas, Mexico crossed the border to seek U.S. asylum after she suffered abuse for her gender identity. U.S. immigration officers expelled her to Tijuana, and she is now living in the tent encampment, constantly afraid for her safety.
These asylum seekers’ fears, unfortunately, are all too reasonable. Stranding asylum seekers in Mexico puts them at risk of being discovered by the persecutors they are fleeing. I interviewed several women escaping gender-based violence whose ex-partners had located them in Tijuana. In February 2021, a Guatemalan Indigenous woman was raped in the street in Tijuana after the Biden administration expelled her with her three young children there. The family had crossed the border at Mexicali to seek asylum after fleeing abuse and threats by the woman’s ex-partner. A Salvadoran mother and children were returned to danger in Tijuana where the woman’s abusive husband, who is connected with organized criminal networks, found them and threatened to kill them. “He knows I’m here,” she told me, “I don’t know what to do. I have WhatsApp messages from him. He says he’s going to find me and kill me.”
To its credit, the Biden administration is now enabling some particularly vulnerable asylum seekers to bypass Title 42 border closures and enter the United States. But this process only accommodates those identified by certain advocacy groups and is insufficient to provide relief to the thousands of people waiting in danger at the border to exercise their legal right to request U.S. asylum.
The administration has suggested it is using the Title 42 expulsion policy to buy time to establish a more comprehensive border process. But each day the administration delays means more suffering for asylum seekers trapped at the border. A Cuban couple who fled political persecution in Cuba has been terrified to leave the shelter where I met them since they were kidnapped, beaten, and the wife repeatedly raped in Mexico. “We feel like animals being hunted,” the wife said. Both experience insomnia, depression, panic attacks, fits of uncontrollable crying, headaches, and extreme anxiety. “Constantly being told to wait, wait, and wait some more is painful because the result is that we are just in a new place waiting to be killed.”
* The names of the asylum seekers are pseudonyms