MEXICO CITY, Feb 1 (UPI) -- Leaders of the human rights group Amnesty International say they found chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border this week, with asylum seekers in Tijuana lacking information about shelter, medical care, staying safe and contacting a lawyer in the high-crime city.
"The new U.S. policy of 'remain in Mexico' is leaving government officials, lawyers, shelters, and not least of all, asylum seekers confused and overwhelmed," Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said from El Paso, Texas.
The seven-member delegation of Amnesty International's senior leadership from the United States, Mexico, Canada, Ireland, Norway and Belgium, and accompanied by the executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, visited San Ysidro, Calif., and Mexico's border cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, two major ports of entry. Amnesty's trip was the first attempt to assess how the two countries' governments are implementing the return of asylum seekers to Tijuana under the Trump administration's recently announced Migrant Protection Protocols.
Under the new practice, asylum-seeking migrants have to pass a credible fear interview with a U.S. immigration officer about the threats faced in their home country. After the interview, the United States returns the asylum seekers to Mexico for an immigration judge to decide their case. The migrants returned to Tijuana this week have March court dates in the United States.
Amnesty International's observers said a lack of transparency exists about the process, and that migrants lack key information, placing vulnerable people in a desperate situation.
Access to lawyers
"Lawyers for asylum seekers can't tell you if they will have access to their clients in Mexico," Huang said. "They can't tell you how their clients will be returned to the courtroom for their hearings in their asylum cases. No one is providing that information."
Legal representation for returned asylum seekers is a key concern for Amnesty International and other migrants' rights advocates. Such representation makes the difference in the success of an asylum case, statistics show.
Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, said it is difficult enough for immigration attorneys to find their clients when they are in U.S. custody.
The "remain in Mexico" policy has "no provision about access to counsel," McCarthy said.
"This is a deliberate decision on the part of Customs and Border Patrol, the U.S. government and the Department of Homeland Security to make this situation as confusing and overwhelming as possible so that no one knows how any of this will work. It leaves these people more desperate than ever," she said.
Alex Neve, executive director of Amnesty International Canada, said the way remain in Mexico was being implemented was to "deter other refugee claimants from arriving."
"This is just one more measure to make the system inaccessible, punitive and fearful as possible to deter others from arriving," Neve said. "Deterrence in international refugee law is illegal."
No access to care
The delegates said Mexican authorities acknowledge having no plans to house, shelter or feed migrants returned by the United States.
In an interview earlier this week with journalist Denese Maerker, the head of Mexico's Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillén, said that civil rights organizations have so far fed and sheltered migrants traveling through Mexico to the United States. He said Mexico's government did not have the same capacity to help migrants.
Colm O'Gorman, Amnesty International Ireland's executive director, said one large migrant shelter was closed this week with only one night's notice to its remaining inhabitants.
"The situation for people in Tijuana who have been abandoned and trapped in this way is increasingly desperate, and we are gravely concerned by that," O'Gorman said.
Amnesty International's border delegation emphasized that Mexico is not a safe country for migrants, pointing to homicide rates in Tijuana and the disappearances, sexual assaults and extortion migrants encounter.
"It's incredibly dangerous in most places for migrants," said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Leutert has helped create the Central American migrant risk database, which shows that migrants face the greatest danger when they cross the Tamaulipas part of the Mexico border into South Texas.
"But the dangers look different from one part of the border to the other, so this is about relative safety," Leutert said.
She added: "Tijuana, for all the focus it's been getting on its crime, is actually one of the safer areas, which is why migrants still choose to go there. You have to think about danger, but relatively, Tijuana's safer than South Texas.
"Migrants without smugglers do not go to South Texas from Central America. If you are waiting for asylum, you are a sitting duck for being kidnapped."
The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that Tijuana's murder rate of 140 people per 100,000 population makes it one of the world's deadliest cities. There were 2,518 murders in 2018.
The chaos and confusion of remain in Mexico could be seen when the U.S. government began returning people this week.
The Amnesty International delegation witnessed the return of the first individual under the new protocols. The nature of his return, the group said, put the 55-year-old Honduran man in danger.
"It was in the full glare of media focus," Amnesty International's O'Gorman said, adding that identifying returned asylum seekers in the media exposes them to all sorts of risk.
"The United States accepted this individual had credible fear and had a case to make that they had for risk of persecution, but he was returned to Mexico and then identified in the world's media by TV cameras and press photographers," O'Gorman said.