By Cora Wright, Legal Fellow, Refugee Protection and Refugee Representation
A few weeks ago, a Mexican cartel in Nuevo Laredo kidnapped Baptist Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz, who operates a network of shelters for migrants, including asylum seekers turned back to Mexico under U.S. policies including “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42. After initially demanding a ransom, the cartel released Ortiz after slashing the tires of the church van he uses to assist migrants. Since then, Ortiz’s kidnappers have vowed to “keep a close eye” on him and continue to make unannounced visits to his shelter, placing him at “escalated risk” for another kidnapping and further attacks.
Other human rights defenders in the region who stand up for refugees and migrants fared far worse. In 2022, Father José Guadalupe Rivas Saldaña, who ran a Catholic migrant shelter in Baja California, was abducted and murdered. In 2019, Pastor Aarón Méndez Ruiz and a staff member of the migrant shelter they ran were kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo after protecting Cuban migrants waiting to seek asylum in the United States. They remain missing. After the abductions, the Northeast Cartel warned that they were “sending priests to hell” who defended migrants.
In response to these attacks and threats, on July 28, 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders expressed concern about “the extraordinary risk that human rights defenders run to provide basic support in the region” and urged the Government of Mexico to specifically “take urgent measures to prevent and reduce the immediate risk of abduction or physical attack against human rights defenders like Lorenzo Ortiz, and the migrants he protects.”
Because human rights defenders’ brave work is seen as a threat by human rights abusers, corrupt government officials, and private actors, they target human rights defenders. Front Line Defenders documented 358 killed in 35 countries in 2021.
The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders promotes strategies to protect human rights defenders, studies global developments and challenges faced by human rights defenders, and works to implement the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. In 2022, the Special Rapporteur requested information from the public about the safety of human rights defenders of asylum seekers, refugees, and other migrants.
Based on Human Rights First’s research and advocacy for refugees seeking humanitarian protection in the United States and our history of supporting human rights defenders, countering violent extremism, and seeking accountability for actions against human rights defenders, we submitted a report to the Special Rapporteur.
Our submission focuses on three issues. We detail illegal U.S. policies that turn away asylum seekers at the border and, as a result, endanger human rights defenders working in Mexico with refugees and migrants, as well as asylum-seeking human rights defenders subjected to those policies. Second, we discuss targeted violence and threats by extremists in the United States against defenders of refugees’ rights. Last, we focus on the harassment by U.S. and Mexican officials of defenders of immigrants’ rights working at the U.S.-Mexico border.
As Human Rights First’s reports and other findings document, U.S. policies illegally block and turn away asylum seekers at U.S. borders. These policies leave asylum seekers, including human rights defenders and other activists who have fled persecution in their home countries, stranded in Mexico, where corrupt officials and cartels target them. Attorneys working with refugees and asylum seekers are targeted by the same cartels that kidnap and disappear priests and pastors who provide migrants safe housing. Since 2019, Human Rights First has tracked thousands of reported attacks — including killings, kidnappings, rapes, and torture — on asylum seekers and migrants returned to or blocked in Mexico.
In the United States, violent extremist, often motivated by racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim animus, attack defenders of refugees and migrants. Rhetoric by both extremists and politicians labeling migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as an “invasion” creates a dangerous atmosphere. Radicalized bigots target humanitarian and legal service organizations, and those perceived to associated with them, because they assist refugees. The extremist who murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 appears to have targeted the congregation because of a conspiracy theory that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which resettles refugees, was bringing in “invaders.”
During the Trump administration, the U.S. government also specifically targeted human rights defenders working between Mexico and the United States to assist asylum seekers and refugees. Customs and Border Protection officers reportedly surveilled these human rights defenders, targeting them for baseless detentions and illegal search and seizures. Our submission details these violations against human rights defenders to help ensure they do not continue.
These are serious threats to human rights defenders that demand clear action. In our submission to the Special Rapporteur, we recommend that the United States end illegal asylum policies that return seekers of asylum to Mexico or bar them from the United States, hold perpetrators of anti-refugee violence accountable, and uphold the Biden administration’s commitment to enable human rights defenders “to promote and defend human rights without hindrance or undue restriction and free from fear of retribution.”