Dec. 6 (UPI) -- More than 600 migrants who are seeking asylum in the United States have been the victims of violent crimes in Mexico after being sent there under a controversial immigration policy, according to a report by Human Rights First.
There have been at least 636 reports of crimes like rape, kidnapping, torture and other crimes since January, when the administration's Migrant Protection Protocols was implemented. Some of the alleged incidents involved more than one victim.
The watchdog organization said the latest tally is an increase of nearly 300 incidents since their report in October.
The program, also known as "remain in Mexico," requires asylum seekers to stay in Mexico until their court hearings in the United States. In Texas, MPP is in effect in the border cities of El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo and Brownsville, whose sister cities in Mexico have all seen sustained or increased violence this year.
The group said the report's sourcing includes interviews with asylum seekers, attorneys, court monitors, researchers, Mexican officials and media reports.
"The extensive and escalating public accounts of kidnappings and attacks on asylum seekers turned back to remain in Mexico are highly alarming," said Kennji Kizuka, the group's senior researcher and policy analyst. "What's worse is that many more men, women and children have certainly suffered attacks, the numbers we have are just cases that have been reported."
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment about Human Rights First's findings.
About 55,000 people have sent back to Mexico under the program, and thousands of others are in Mexico under the Trump administration's metering policy, which requires asylum seekers to wait weeks or months before even applying.
The report said 130 children have been kidnapped or victims of attempted kidnappings. It also cites instances in which Department of Homeland Security officials apparently broke the agency's own rules by returning vulnerable populations, like pregnant women, the seriously ill, LGBTQ migrants or Mexican nationals.
DHS has defended the program as meeting its purpose: to stem the flow of migrants into the United States who would otherwise wait years until their asylum claims are adjudicated. Officials have also said the program has helped reduce fraudulent claims and alleviated overcrowding in Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities.
"It's one is our most successful initiatives," acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said last month in El Paso. "It's critical to what [the agents] do to control the flow ... We are able to do in a matter of months what would take years to do."
During a press briefing in Washington, D.C., last month, Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said that safety was "okay" in Mexico and that reports of violence were "anecdotal," according to the report and attached transcript of the commissioner's remarks. He also said that during a recent State Department-led trip to Mexico, some shelters had continuous law enforcement protection.
But in recent trips to shelters or tent camps in the Mexican border cities of Ciudad Juárez and Matamoros, Texas Tribune reporters did not see security or law enforcement near the facilities. In Ciudad Juarez, some asylum seekers were told by shelter operators to limit the time they spend outdoors.
The MPP program is under review by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California and has been allowed to continue while the case is pending.
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