“We Need Someone to See Us”: To Save Lives, the Biden Administration Should Quickly Restore Refugee Protection
Ana and Jorge, an Afro-Cuban couple, were kidnapped soon after U.S. border officers expelled them to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in 2020. They’d crossed the border to seek protection in the United States after Cuban government agents attacked them for investigating the death of Ana’s father. Scared and exhausted, they asked a taxi driver in Nuevo Laredo to take them to a hotel. Instead, the driver brought them to a house outside the city where armed men robbed them and forced them into a large, unfurnished room covered in blood. Other kidnapping victims were moaning on the floor, some with severed body parts.
Their captors found a contact in Jorge’s phone for a friend in the United States. “They told us he would have to pay $4,000 for both of us, and if he didn’t, they would cut us up, part by part,” Ana recalled. “I lost control and started crying. My boyfriend pleaded with them, and they hit him with a gun. Then they beat me. It was horrible. We spent these days in hell.”
Ana and Jorge* are among thousands of refugees the United States has blocked from protection at the southern border, sending them to danger either in Mexico or in the countries they fled. “I still have nightmares,” Ana said when I interviewed her months after the kidnapping, as part of Human Rights First’s ongoing research on U.S. policies that have effectively eliminated humanitarian protections at the border.
Border officers returned Ana and Jorge to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Having managed to escape and move to a different part of Mexico, they’re terrified to return to Nuevo Laredo for their first MPP hearing, which was originally scheduled for October 20th; but like all other MPP hearings, has been indefinitely postponed due to pandemic-related court closures.
Despite these closures, the Trump administration continues to use MPP to expel migrants and asylum seekers, primarily Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. People returned to Mexico have been kidnapped, robbed, assaulted, and murdered at astounding rates. Human Rights First has tallied 1,314 publicly reported cases of violent attacks against migrants and asylum seekers returned to Mexico—and this is surely just a small sample, as most people in MPP have not spoken to journalists or researchers.
The Trump administration is also exploiting bogus orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both to turn away refugees at the southern border and refuse to process them, stranding them in danger. These orders have been debunked by public health experts and rejected by the CDC’s own senior experts. Our December 2020 report found that people expelled to Mexico under the CDC orders have also faced violence, including rape and kidnapping.
Marta, an Afro-Cuban teacher who was returned to Mexico with her 16-year-old son, has endured brutality and racism in Mexico. A taxi driver kidnapped them in Reynosa, and armed men held them captive for six days until a friend in Cuba sold her belongings to pay the ransom. When they had crossed the border into the United States to seek protection from political persecution in Cuba, they told U.S. border officers that they were terrified of remaining in Mexico. After a farcical, telephone screening interview, border officers sent them back. “It is impossible for them to believe you when they cannot see your face,” Marta said. “And our real stories are so horrible that they do not believe such things could happen.”
A few months later, Marta encountered one of her captors on the street. The man attacked and robbed her. Now hiding with her son in an abandoned house, Marta is afraid to go outside. “We have no hope, and we are living in fear,” she told me. “Being in MPP is slowly killing us. We are hungry and cold, and we have suffered so much harassment because we are Black. We are human beings, professionals. We need someone to see us.”
Violence isn’t the only threat to asylum seekers in Mexico. Most shelters have closed their doors to newcomers to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and fewer humanitarian organizations are able to provide support to asylum seekers. Resources and jobs are scarce for migrants, especially those who face anti-Black discrimination. Ana told me that when she searched for a job, she was told the only work she would be able to find would be in a nude bar or as a sex worker.
Asylum seekers stranded due to border closures under the CDC order report similar challenges. Ali was studying economics at university when the Ethiopian military imprisoned and tortured him for protesting human rights violations. When he fled to the U.S. southern border in May 2020, he learned that ports of entry were closed to asylum seekers. Waiting for an opportunity to request U.S. refugee protection in Mexico, Ali has faced racial harassment on the street. He’s been called “a slave,” for instance. “You just need to keep quiet and continue on your way because if you answer them, they beat you,” he said. Ali also recounted that a few months ago, a group of Mexican men beat three Cameroonian asylum seekers in Tijuana, calling them “monkeys.”
When Ali tried to rent a room, the owner told him he didn’t rent to Africans. The only shelter Ali could find was in a decrepit old hotel, where he shared a bedroom with three other African asylum seekers. When residents complained about the lack of running water, the owner called immigration officers, who handcuffed and detained several African asylum seekers, threatened to deport them, and forced them to pay a bribe. Ali spent a month in the summer packing boxes in a warehouse, earning less than a dollar per hour. “This place is hell,” he told me.
Desperate, Ali decided to cross the border to ask for refugee protection. With other African asylum seekers, he walked across near the Calexico, California port of entry. The group turned themselves in to Border Patrol and asked to apply for asylum. Agents drove Ali several hours in a van. He thought he was headed to a detention center, where he would begin the asylum process. Instead, the agents took him into Mexico through the San Ysidro port of entry, over 100 miles from where he had crossed. The agents expelled him under the CDC order without giving him a fear screening interview or access to the asylum system, as required by U.S. law.
Soon after his return to Mexico, a new owner who “does not like Africans” took over the hotel and told the Black residents to move out. “I do not know how I can survive here,” Ali said.
These stories are not inevitable. Asylum seekers and other migrants are suffering because of the Trump administration’s wide-ranging assault on the human rights of refugees. The Biden Administration should immediately end policies that endanger refugees and violate the law—including metering, the Remain in Mexico program, and expulsions under the CDC order. Instead, it should quickly process asylum seekers forced into danger in Mexico.
Public health measures recommended by experts – including social distancing, personal protective equipment, and health screenings – can limit the exposure of both migrants and federal officers to COVID-19. Detention is unnecessary in most cases because the vast majority of asylum seekers at the border (92 percent according to one study) have friends or family in the United States who can house them until their immigration court hearings.
The Biden administration has said it may need 6 months to reverse these policies and bring asylum seekers stranded in Mexico to safety. But some may not survive that long. The U.S. government has the capacity to process people seeking safety at the border immediately. For asylum seekers like Ana, Jorge, Marta, and Ali, delay could mean death.
* The names of the asylum seekers are pseudonyms