Last week, a number of organizations that aid migrants traveling through Mexico received an audio clip from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City with a message for the migrant “caravans” headed to the United States.
In the clip, which was obtained by Yahoo News, Edgar Ramirez, the Department of Homeland Security’s attaché to the embassy, warns the migrants, who are mostly from Central America, about increased security at the border and potential criminal prosecutions they could face by trying to cross illegally. Under recently implemented U.S. policy, he says, people who request asylum or other protections at the U.S.-Mexico border will be returned to Mexico to await their hearing, “which can take several months.”
Ramirez, speaking in Spanish, adds that even after months of waiting, “The reality for the Central American community with regards to asylum requests is that very few of them are approved.”
But the migrant-aid organizations weren’t eager to pass the message along to their clients. Ramirez’s warning that “very few” applications are approved “is reason enough for me not to share it,” said Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Institute for Women in Migration, or IMUMI, a Mexico City-based nonprofit founded by human rights lawyers from the U.S. and Mexico that provides policy advocacy and legal representation to migrant women. “We know, and they know, that every case is different.”
Kuhner said that her organization was among many throughout Mexico that received the audio message from the embassy last week. She and more than 100 colleagues discussed the issue on an ad-hoc running text-message chain.
“I just wrote and said everyone should listen to [this] and don’t share it with anybody,” said Kuhner.
Kuhner noted that her organization does provide regularly updated information to migrants both in person as they are traveling through Mexico City and via video messages posted to the WhatsApp groups that have become the central source of information for caravan members.
Though the information IMUMI offers “isn’t very encouraging either,” Kuhner said the group will still try to explain the different, albeit limited, legal options migrants have, whether it’s seeking asylum or other protections in the United States or obtaining humanitarian visas in Mexico.
Kuhner also objected to Ramirez’s warning about the controversial new policy requiring that migrants from countries other than Mexico, excluding unaccompanied children, who request asylum in the U.S. at the southwest border be forced to wait in Mexico for their cases to be heard. Previously, asylum seekers might be kept in U.S. custody, or paroled into the country, while awaiting a hearing.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen first announced the policy, now referred to by DHS as the “Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP, back in December, but it wasn’t actually implemented until late January and then only at the San Ysidro Port of Entry between Tijuana and San Diego. Homeland Security officials have said that they intend to imminently expand the program to other locations along the U.S.-Mexico border, but have not outlined a clear timeline or confirmed (including in response to request for this story) that the policy is currently being enforced anywhere beyond San Ysidro.
Last week, around the same time Ramirez’s message began circulating among Mexican organizations, the MPP became the subject of a federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, who argue that the policy violates both U.S. and international law. Earlier this week, the groups asked a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order to block DHS from continuing to carry out the policy while they make the case for a preliminary injunction.
“This recording is another attempt to spread false information and prevent asylum seekers from exercising their legal right to seek protection in the United States,” Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement to Yahoo News. “Threats of detention, criminal prosecution, family separation, or now the threat of having to wait in Mexico, demonstrate the Trump administration’s ongoing pattern of cruelty toward immigrants.”
Trump’s specific policies aside, the tactic of using targeted messaging campaigns to deter migration is one that predates the current administration. For example, following the unprecedented surge in 2014 of unaccompanied Central American minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, DHS launched a multimillion dollar campaign across Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that used a variety of media, including billboards, television and radio ads, and even original songs, to raise awareness about the dangers of migrating to the U.S. through Mexico, with the goal of discouraging families in those countries from sending their children on the journey north.
Alan Bersin, who served as DHS’s assistant secretary of international affairs and chief diplomatic officer from 2012 to 2017, said that such messaging campaigns can be effective but only if what the government is claiming is consistent with what migrants are actually experiencing and then reporting back to family and friends in their home country.
“Remember, it’s not the pilgrims crossing the Atlantic where no word gets back to the home country for months,” said Bersin, who was nicknamed the “Border Czar” under Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. “Here, you’ve got people with cellphones who, within a very short period, are telling you [people back home], ‘yes we got into the States,’ or ‘we didn’t get into the Sates.’”
Based on his experience, Bersin said, a message like the one recorded by Ramirez would likely be crafted and shared at the request of DHS with the approval of the State Department.
“The recording was part of U.S. [government] outreach, within Mexico, to caravan migrants to provide them with accurate and factual information regarding the U.S. immigration process,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement to Yahoo News. “Senior officials of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico and of our Embassies around the world regularly engage with the media and a variety of local stakeholders to share information about U.S. policy in an effort to ensure transparency and increase public awareness. We defer to the Department of Homeland Security for specific information on the Migrant Protection Protocol policy.”
A DHS spokesperson declined to provide any on-the-record information about the message or a broader messaging campaign.
It’s unclear whether the recording by Ramirez will be backed up with more messages. However, recent tweets posted by accounts of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico as well as the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana promote similar information about the MPP, along with the hashtag #NoTeArriesgues, or “Don’t Risk It.”
Bajo los Protocolos de Protección a los Migrantes, los ciudadanos centroamericanos que soliciten asilo en Estados Unidos tendrán que esperar en México que se evalúe su caso. Nueve de cada diez de éstas son rechazadas. #NoTeArriesgues pic.twitter.com/UGk9mv1zU3
— US Consulate Tijuana (@ConsuladoUSATJ) February 21, 2019
A search for recent tweets using that same hashtag reveals a few others that offer similarly discouraging messages about illegal immigration, without explicit mention of the MPP.
One posted by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico last week shows a darkened image of a family, including small children, walking with suitcases under text that reads, in Spanish, “Do not waste your time and money on a trip destined to fail. The road is long and extremely dangerous.”
Another posted the same day by the Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows a photo of two men and small children walking hand in hand at the back of a much larger group of people all with backpacks — presumably a caravan. The text reads, “On the way to the United States, you can lose your life and that of your children. Do not risk it.”
— MINEX Guatemala 🇬🇹 (@MinexGt) February 15, 2019
“It does appear to be a campaign,” said Daniella Burgi-Palomino, a senior associate with the Latin America Working Group, or LAWG, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for U.S. policies that promote human rights in Latin America. LAWG was one of 60 organizations from the U.S., Mexico and Central America that signed a letter to Secretary Nielsen last week outlining their concerns with the MPP and urging DHS to retract the policy.
Burgi-Palomino described the language used in both Ramirez’s audio recording and the recent tweets as “extremely concerning.”
“How much more blatant of a deterrent message can you get?” she said, referring to the statistic cited in both forums that more than 90 percent of asylum claims made by Central Americans are ultimately denied. Denial rates among asylum seekers from Northern Triangle countries have climbed dramatically over the past several years, as worsening conditions in the region have driven people to flee in increasing numbers and, more recently, policy changes under the current administration have sought to further block access to protections from this particular population.
But statistics show that the biggest factor in determining the outcome of an asylum case is legal representation. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, 90 percent of asylum applicants without an attorney are denied, while nearly half of those with representation are successful.
“It’s not up up to DHS to say most likely your asylum claim is false,” said Burgi-Palomino.
She also pointed out that, in his recorded message, Ramirez insists that requests for asylum in the U.S. “should be presented only at the official ports of entry and nowhere else.” That is the position of the Trump administration, but in fact the law, consistent with international law, provides that anyone physically in the country, regardless of how they arrived, is eligible to request asylum protections. An order by a federal judge has stayed enforcement of the new policy.
Asked to comment on certain assertions made by Ramirez in the recording, including the claim that asylum requests must only be made at official ports of entry, a DHS spokesperson disputed Yahoo News’ translation. But a translated transcript provided by DHS appeared to support Yahoo News’ interpretation of Ramirez’s message.
Regardless of how the news is disseminated, Bersin said he thinks the MPP itself “is actually the first thing that the Trump administration has done that has a reasonable chance of deterring people from starting out in Central America.”
“If the word gets out that you can’t get into the United States to wait for your immigration court hearing but you have to stay in Mexico, a certain number of the people are going to say, ‘I don’t want to stay in Mexico for two years waiting for my hearing,’” he predicted.
“On the other hand, for the people who genuinely need to get out of Honduras or El Salvador or Guatemala, they may still come,” he said, adding that increased barriers to asylum may also lead more people to resort to “traditional smuggling” to get across the border.
Just how the policy — and the messaging surrounding it — will ultimately affect the flow of migrants from Central America remains to be seen.
As of last week, at least, the word had not yet been spread among the 1,600 Central American migrants held by Mexican officials in a makeshift shelter in the border town of Piedras Negras.
“Most of the people we talked to were definitely planning to seek asylum, but almost nobody knew about how the asylum process really worked,” said Joe Rivano Barros, a field officer for the Texas-based immigration nonprofit RAICES, who spent last week talking to migrants from outside the heavily guarded shelter. “Nobody knew how to get on the list to cross the border to seek asylum, and definitely nobody had heard of any of the most recent changes in U.S. asylum law — especially the remain in Mexico policy.”
Asked whether he thinks such information would’ve stopped them from making the journey north, Rivano Barros said, “It’s hard to say… what percentage of the total, [but] certainly some people would be deterred by that.”
“Clearly if you make it harder for people to seek asylum, people will stay in violent situations and situations where they don’t have much hope for the future,” he said.
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