US President Joe Biden will take part in a “virtual event” Monday with his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a center-left populist who worked closely with the Trump administration to stem migration from Central America.
The March 1 meeting, announced by the White House, comes after López Obrador spent weeks refusing to recognize Biden’s 2020 victory. After his victory was formalized by the Electoral College in mid-December, however, the Mexican head of state sent Biden a letter “to express my recognition of your stance in favor of migrants from Mexico and the rest of the world.”
The two leaders then agreed on a December 19 call to collaborate on a “new approach” to migration from Central America. They also spoke soon after Biden was inaugurated.
According to the White House, Monday’s agenda includes “cooperation on migration,” as well as COVID-19 and “joint development efforts” in the Americas.
Soon after taking office, Biden announced he was ending the “Remain in Mexico” program that forced asylum-seekers to wait out their cases south of the border. He also announced that those subjected to that program would now be eligible to come to the US.
During the previous administration, Mexico closely collaborated with its top trading partner to prevent migrants from reaching the US, deploying thousands of soldiers and setting up police checkpoints across the country to arrest people coming from Honduras and Guatemala.
More than 1,300 people have been raped, kidnapped, or otherwise assaulted since February 2019, when the Trump administration began requiring asylum-seekers to wait out their claims in Mexico, according to a new report.
“Continuing to turn away and expel people seeking US refugee protection at the southern border is both a humanitarian disgrace and a legal travesty,” Kennji Kizuka, a researcher at Human Rights First, which put out the study, said Wednesday. “The Trump administration is flouting US laws and treaty obligations to protect refugees, and weaponizing the pandemic to block and expel people seeking safety in the United States.”
But Kizuka told Business Insider that the report from Human Rights First understates the problem, noting that assaults against those deported under a more recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention order have not actually been included in the count, which is limited to those expelled under the “Remain in Mexico” program. Due to that program, 23,000 people are currently waiting, in Mexico, to hear if their fears of violence will be sufficient to gain asylum in the US.
In March, the CDC issued an order effectively denying the right to seek asylum – an order that CBS News reported came only after intense lobbying from the White House – the US has expelled over 260,000 migrants, including at least 8,800 unaccompanied children, per Human Rights First (the ACLU estimates the number was more like 14,000 by November).
And the Trump administration has continued deporting kids even after a court order explicitly demanding that it stop, a US judge having ruled in November that the expulsions violate migrants’ right to due process; dozens have been sent back to Mexico anyway.
“This is what the Trump administration is doing to migrants in the name of stopping the spread of COVID while they hold lavish holiday parties inside The White House with no social distancing or masks, “Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit that assists immigrants at the border, said in response to the report. “This was never about stopping COVID-19.”
The incoming Biden administration has pledged to revisit the CDC’s order and immediately end the “Remain in Mexico” program. For many, however, the damage will have already been done. According to Human Rights First, at least 318 children returned to Mexico – whether they were from there originally or not – “were kidnapped or subjected to kidnapping attempts.” That figure includes only those victims who were willing to come forward and speak to journalists or researchers.
The stories that have been told are horrific. In May, for example, an asylum-seeking couple from Cuba were kidnapped immediately after they were returned to Nuevo Laredo by US officials, “held by armed men in a room covered in blood where migrants with missing body parts moaned on the floor,” according to Human Rights First.
Critics don’t just blame the United States, however. The Remain in Mexico program is only possible, after all, because the government of center-left President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to it. On Wednesday, two Mexican nonprofit organizations, the Institute for Women in Migration and the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic State of Law, filed a complaint with Mexico’s top prosecutor demanding an investigation into the de facto impunity enjoyed by those who victimize US asylum-seekers in the country.
The attorney general should not only look for those criminals, they said, “but also they should investigate the criminal liability of the Mexican authorities that have assumed the obligation of guarantors [of migrant safety] and have breached it,” the Mexican outlet Animal Politico reported.
Many of those being denied entry to the US, meanwhile, are coming from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, countries that the Trump administration at least publicly considers violent and politically repressive. Some have managed to avoid the Remain in Mexico program only to be forcibly returned to the hands of a government they fled.
Valeska Alemán Sandoval, a Nicaraguan student activist, told this reporter she was tortured by a pro-government paramilitary group, a toenail ripped out, and forced by police to record a “confession” identifying her fellow anti-austerity protesters as criminals and drug addicts. But the Nicaraguan government, while adamantly “anti-imperialist” in its rhetoric, closely collaborates with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, helping the Trump administration expedite the deportation of its own citizens.
In August, Alemán was a beneficiary of this international cooperation and put on a flight back to Managua, where Nicaraguan authorities were waiting.