“What does the program ‘Remain in Mexico’ mean and how does it differ from ‘Mexico as safe third country’”

By  |  28 / November / 2018

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Thousands of Hondurans fleeing poverty and violence move in a caravan toward the United States, in Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras October 14, 2018. REUTERS/ Jorge Cabrera

In its 24th of November edition, the Washington Post reports that the Trump administration has the support of the upcoming Mexican administration headed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to drive a plan entitled “Remain in Mexico”.  This plan would consist of the applicants for exile who arrive to the Southern Border being returned to Mexico to wait for a resolution in their case in the United States’ courts.

That same day, the press office of Mexican Senator Olga Sánchez Cordero, who will assume the position of Secretary of the Interior of Mexico on December 1, assured that there does not exist any agreement between the upcoming federal government of Mexico and the United States; that in relation to the caravans, the priority will be to protect human rights and to assist the Central American immigrants; that over the current administration falls the responsibility of providing humanitarian assistance to the migrants and defining their migratory situation; and finally that the “The future administration does not consider in its plans that Mexico assumes the condition of ‘safe third country’ for the assistance of immigrants from Central America, or from other countries, who find themselves in Mexican territory, or for those who do it in the future”.[1]

The “Remain in Mexico” Plan does not mean, effectively, an agreement of “safe third country”.  However, it has implications of great magnitude in the areas of protection and asylum in both countries.

Even though the number of applicants in asylum in Mexico has grown very quickly in the last five years (it has multiplied by 10), the total number of applicants continues to be a negligible part of those who present themselves in the United States.  In 2017 Mexico received 14,596 applications for refugee status while in the United States received 143,000 affirmative asylum applications[2].  Of this number of applications, 79,000 presented themselves at some port of entry at the border with Mexico.  They consist of people who come from dozens of countries throughout the world who transit through Mexican territory.

Both countries present serious problems of delay in resolutions and the accumulation of pending cases.  For example, while in Mexico the resolution of a refugee application should resolve itself in 45 working days, the majority of applicants should wait more than 6 months, and some more than a year, to receive an answer from COMAR (Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance), which results in a large number of abandonments and withdrawals.  As such, in December 2017, 53% of the applications that had been presented during that year continued to be processed and 16.4% of the applicants had abandoned or withdrawn from the process.[3]

In the case of the United States, the time established by law for the duration of the process is 180 days.  However, in reality the grand majority of the cases exceed two years wait time, and some continue up to 5 years.  Accordingly, in June of 2018 there existed a number of 320,000 pending cases of affirmative asylum and a total of 746,000 pending asylum cases of any type.[4]

In accordance with el Programa de las Americas: “when a country recognizes another as ‘safe third country’ they are referring to an agreement that permits the first country to resend to the other country the asylum applicants who arrive at their territory, with the assumption that this is more secure for the asylum and refugee applicants.  This type of agreement obviously comes with financial compensation for the country that accepts the responsibility of the asylum and refugee applicants.  (…) This mechanism is used in various first world countries that externalized their borders, so the recognition of the safe third country permits that people who flee do not arrive at their territory.  It is commonly justified with the argument that, if the people flee, they will not have a reason to go further than the safe first county that they crossed in their journey.”[5]

Therefore, an agreement between the United States and Mexico declaring the latter as a safe third country, would mean that people from third world countries (for example, Central Americans) who present themselves at the border to request asylum, would be systematically rejected and obligated to request refuge in Mexico.

The “Remain in Mexico” Plan would mean that people from third world countries who arrive at the United States’ southern border to apply for asylum, will have to wait first in Mexico to be received by United States authorities for an interview about well-founded fears.  After said interview, they would be returned to Mexico and would have to wait there until their cases were processed by United States courts (to say between two and 5 years).  Despite the fact that there exists no formal agreement between the two countries, since 2016 asylum applicants who arrive at the border wait in Mexico to be received by the well-founded fears interview.  That’s to say, the United States government has actually imposed the first part of the Plan “Remain in Mexico”.  This explains why there are already waiting lists for thousands of persons in cities around the northern border of Mexico, once administered by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración, or National Institute of Migration, and currently by asylum applicants, more or less organized.  For example, in the port of San Ysidro, adjacent to Tijuana, there is currently a waiting list of around 5,000 people.  U.S. Customs and Borders Protection permits the entry of around 40 to 100 applicants a day to complete well-founded fears interviews.[6]The new asylum applicants who arrive to that city should therefore wait around 3 months to have their interview with United States authorities.

Currently, after their interviews the asylum applicants are taken to a detention center.  For families, they are frequently set free to wait to appear in court.  In the case where they apply the “Remain in Mexico” Plan, after the interview, the applicants should return to Mexico and wait there for the appointment to appear in a United States court for the resolution of their case.

The current situation for those traveling in the caravan, who arrived in Tijuana during the past few weeks, has demonstrated the incapacity of the Mexican government to protect and attend to immigrants, refugees, and asylum applicants. However, the more than 5,000 people who find themselves packed inside of an improvised shelter of the Unidad Deportiva Benito Juárez represent a small number of possible asylum applicants in relation to those who arrive every year at the southern border.

Considering that the cities in northern Mexico are listed among the most violent in the world, an agreement between the upcoming administration of López Obrador and Trump in matters of asylum would put in great danger the people who are fleeing from their countries because of violence, of serious violations of human rights and political persecution.  Also, for Mexico it would represent extraordinary economic, social, political, and cultural responsibilities in terms of reception and integration of refugees and asylum applicants.  Overall, an agreement of this type would undoubtedly diminish the legitimacy of the upcoming Mexican government, which since the electoral campaign assured it would be ready to abandon the politics of contention over immigration, such as defending and guaranteeing human rights for immigrants.

 

[1]https://lopezobrador.org.mx/2018/11/24/respuesta-de-olga-sanchez-cordero-a-the-washington-post/

[2]Affirmative asylum means that applicants voluntarily present themselves before U.S. immigration authorities, generally at a port of entry, and are interviewed by an agent to determine if they have well-founded enough fears to not be deported back to their country of origin.  There are other forms of international protection in the U.S., such as defensive asylum that can be applied for by the person that finds themselves in trial for deportation (See: Meissner D., Hipsman, F. and Aleinikoff A., The U.S. Asylum System in Crisis.  Charting a Way Forward.  Migration Policy Institute, September 18, 2018).

[3]Estadistica COMAR, https://www.gob.mx/comar/articulos/estadisticas-2013-2017

[4]Migration Policy Institute, Op. Cit.

[5]Blenet, A. and Carlsen, L. “México y el acuerdo de tercer país seguro.  Negación del derecho de asilo y externalización de fronteras.” Programa de las Américas.  November 2018.

[6]Washington Post, Op Cit.