1 of 2 | Two Central American migrants and their young daughter rest in the town of Tapachula, on the western border between Mexico and Guatemala, in April 2017 before approaching Mexico's immigration authorities for asylum. File Photo by Eduardo Torres/EPA
MEXICO CITY, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- For Central American migrants, Mexico is becoming a destination -- not just a stop on the way to the United States. But damage from last year's earthquake, coupled with an unprecedented number of asylum claims from Central and South Americans, has put the government about two years behind in processing.
By law, asylum applications in Mexico are meant to be processed within 45 days.
The September earthquake damaged the offices of the Mexican Commission of Assistance to Refugees, or COMAR, which handles asylum applications from people fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries. Unable to enter the COMAR office, the agency's overburdened staff could not process the backlog of existing asylum applications.
Applicants with a pending asylum claim in Mexico face difficult living situations. They cannot work, go to school, or access certain features of Mexico's public health system. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) said in February that COMAR was still processing asylum claims from 2016. The CNDH said this means vulnerable migrants lack official protection in Mexico. The CNDH said that in Mexico City alone, 3,600 people are awaiting decisions on political asylum.
Official statistics show Mexico has become a destination, rather than a stop along the way to the United States. In 2014, COMAR received 2,137 applications for political asylum. In 2017, refugee requests for asylum in Mexico soared to 14,596. Since 2013, asylum applications have increased by more than 1,000 percent, Nancy Pérez García, director of migrant assistance nonprofit Sin Fronteras, told Mexican newspaper El Universal.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated in 2016 that most of the increase in Mexico's asylum applications come from Central Americans fleeing violence and political instability in the Golden Triangle countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Recently, applications from Venezuelans and Nicaraguans have been rising, too.
With the increase and an earthquake-damaged building, Mexico's government took the unprecedented step of stopping all asylum applications in October 2017. COMAR only returned to reviewing migrants' political asylum claims in 2018 after a lawsuit successfully brought by a human rights nonprofit, the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Protection of Human Rights, or CMDPDH. In April, the judge ruled Mexico was violating its own constitution by failing to honor international commitments to migrant protection and must again receive applications.
Even before the earthquake, COMAR was overburdened, underfunded and understaffed, with 14,596 political asylum applications filed in 2017.
Using COMAR's statistics, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported earlier this year that the agency only recognized 1,907 persons as refugees, while 918 were just granted temporary protection, with 7,719 applications still to be processed.
Migrant advocates in Mexico say many applicants for political asylum do not follow through with the process. Stalled applications mean potential refugees stay in Mexico without authorization, attempt to cross into the United States or are deported to their country of origin. Official statistics show Mexico deported 151,000 Central Americans in 2016.
Mexico's deportation apparatus receives far more official funding than COMAR.
Manuel Toral, an investigator for the non-profit watchdog Mexicans Against Corruption, reported that Mexico's National Migration Institute (the equivalent of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) received a budget 281 times larger than COMAR. In 2017, Mexico spent U.S. $262 million on immigration enforcement, while COMAR received only $1.1 million.