Members of a US-bound migrant caravan from Honduras have been detained in Guatemala and deported before they could reach Mexico. Though their journey was cut short, the formation of a new caravan reveals that – as in 2018 and 2019 – Central Americans are still fleeing violence, hunger and climate change en masse.

The crisis at the US-Mexico border also persists despite the coronavirus drawing media attention toward other matters. As a scholar of Mexican migration, I have watched the pandemic create new hardships for immigrants while giving the Trump administration leeway to impose further restrictions on the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers.

The result is a continuation of dehumanising and dangerous conditions on the border, with less public scrutiny than ever.

Immigration US Mexico border

In this file photo, Central American migrants, returned from the US to Nuevo Laredo in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocol to wait for their court hearing for asylum seekers, are seen walking towards a shelter after arriving to Monterrey, Mexico, on 31st July, 2019. PICTURE: Reuters/Daniel Becerril/File photo.

Crisis at the border
During my research for a 2019 documentary, Waylaid in Tijuana, I observed firsthand the difficult conditions facing thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers who were stranded at the US-Mexico border well before the pandemic.

Under international and domestic law, the United States must offer asylum to people with a “well-founded fear” of persecution based on their political beliefs, racial or ethnic background, religion or other special characteristics that make them a target for violence.

"[T]oday’s migrants [arriving in Mexico] receive almost no government support. The lucky ones find food and lodging at a church-run migrant shelter, an informal job waiting tables or working construction and access to health care and legal counsel through local or US-based non-profit organisations."

But in April, 2018, the Trump administration began “metering” asylum-seekers by requiring that they get on a waiting list for their initial appointment with US officials. By August, 2019, 25,000 people were on the list, mostly in Tijuana. In February, 2020, just before the global pandemic was declared, 15,000 people were still waiting.

Nine months after metering began, the Trump administration introduced the Migration Protection Protocols, which require asylum-seekers who pass their initial interview to return to Mexico to wait for each subsequent court hearing. By March, 2020, over 65,000 asylum-seekers had been returned to Mexico, mostly through ports of entry in Texas.

Under pressure from the Trump administration, the Mexican Government acceded to this policy, giving asylum-seekers the right to wait for their interview in Mexico. Migrants in the caravans that arrived in late 2018 and early 2019 were also given a special work permit.

But the Mexican Government has since drastically curtailed these permits, and today’s migrants receive almost no government support. The lucky ones find food and lodging at a church-run migrant shelter, an informal job waiting tables or working construction and access to health care and legal counsel through local or US-based non-profit organisations.

Most migrants are not so lucky. Shelters cannot keep up with the demand, leaving thousands on the streets or in tent camps with no plumbing or electricity, especially along the Texas border. Asylum-seekers outside the shelters rarely have access to social assistance or legal counsel.

Asylum-seekers are also targeted by criminals and local police for extortion, mugging, kidnapping and assault – adding another layer of trauma to the violence suffered back home and along their journey. During the interviews with asylum-seekers conducted for Waylaid in Tijuana, my colleagues and I could see the fear and anxiety in their body language.

Barred by the pandemic
These two policies – the metering system and the Migration Protection Protocols – had vastly reduced Central American migrants’ chances of gaining asylum in the US even before the pandemic. As of August, 2020, only 570 of the 44,000 asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico whose cases had been decided were granted refuge in the US. That’s an approval rate of 1.3 per cent, compared with 21 per cent in 2018 for asylum-seekers from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

The pandemic has now enabled the Trump administration to effectively end asylum as an avenue for Central Americans to legally enter the United States.

In March, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security closed the waiting lists for asylum interviews and suspended asylum hearings. The Trump administration also invoked Title 42, a little-used rule of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intended to prevent the spread of infectious disease, to expel all migrants who cross the US-Mexico border immediately and without the hearing to which many of them would normally be entitled.

Under this rule, US Customs and Border Patrol has turned away more than 147,000 people since March, over the objections of top scientists. Most of the migrants, including non-Mexicans, are stuck in Mexico.

That puts even more pressure on Mexico’s already overextended shelters, many of which stopped taking new residents or closed down completely when the pandemic hit.

And with much of Mexico’s economy on lockdown, jobs are nearly impossible to find. A recent International Labor Organization report finds Mexico lost 10.4 million informal jobs during the first two months of the pandemic, particularly in areas like hospitality and construction that used to employ migrants.

Dual crises
Despite the obvious health risks, US Customs and Border Patrol continues to require that migrants check in regularly at ports of entry to keep their asylum cases active. Yet pandemic restrictions mean US-based aid workers and lawyers are unable to cross the border to help their clients.

Mexico, like the US, is struggling to contain COVID-19; over 81,000 people have died of the disease. Many asylum-seekers waiting at the border cannot practice social distancing in crowded encampments or apartments and have nowhere to turn if they get sick.

Hunger, sickness, violence and generally dangerous conditions in Central America mean many asylum-seekers will brave the obvious health risks at the US-Mexico border rather than return home. And others, like the migrants in the new Honduran caravan, will continue to flee.

The US asylum system has been crippled by politics and the pandemic while the humanitarian crisis at the border continues.The Conversation

Katrina Burgess, Associate Professor of Political Economy, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.