NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — Of course Vanessa worried about what would happen when she fled Honduras after gangs killed her husband, brother and father. But never in her wildest dreams did she imagine making it all the way to America only to end up in as dangerous a place as the one she fled.
“It didn’t cross my mind that we would be returned to Mexico,” said Vanessa, who travelled to the U.S. in August with her 12-year-old daughter seeking asylum. But two days after turning herself into U.S. Border Patrol agents, she and the other migrants they arrived with were told they were being taken for “inspection.”
“Then we realized it was a lie. Instead of advancing, we were being taken back to Mexico,” she said. “Everyone started to cry.”
They were left here in Nuevo Laredo, a city that the U.S. State Department classifies on the same scale as a war zone and warns U.S. citizens from stepping foot in because of the threat of kidnapping and violence.
On Monday, Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan called that sweeping new policy responsible for returning asylum seekers like Vanessa to Mexico a “game changer.” The policy, which dictates that asylum seekers must wait in Mexico until a judge decides their case, has become the principal tool in the Trump administration’s increasingly successful efforts to clamp down on migrants arriving through the Southern Border.
“It discourages the abuse and exploitation of U.S. laws and non-meritorious or false asylum claims,” Morgan said at a White House briefing, while highlighting the dramatic drop in asylum seekers in the month of August. He credited the policy as one of the main drivers behind halving the number of people stopped at the border, from 130,000 apprehensions in May to 64,000 in August.
“We have sent asylum seekers back to Mexico, and said ‘hope you don’t die. Bye, bye’”
While Morgan has championed the new policy, asylum seekers now living in Mexico only see desperation and terror. That’s because under the benignly named “Migration Protection Protocols” policy, they are being returned to some of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, where they are being preyed upon by highly organized cartels that have found a lucrative new source of revenue in Trump’s approach to migration.
“I am terrified to be here,” said Claudia López Romero, who was returned to Nuevo Laredo two days after turning herself into U.S. Border Patrol, where she was seeking protection because of political persecution in Nicaragua.
Like many before her, she quickly realized Nuevo Laredo wasn’t worth the risk, and decided to take up Mexican officials on their only offer of help: a free bus-ride to Tapachula, a city 30 hours away on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.
Until now, Trump’s attempts to stop the flow of migrants arriving through Mexico has largely backfired. The courts struck down many of his policies while public outrage led him to rescind others, like family separation. Instead of curbing migration flows, Trump’s frequent promises to shut the border spurred the opposite effect: smugglers encouraged migrant families to travel to the U.S. before it was too late, contributing to an unprecedented surge in the spring.
The smugglers may not have understood the nuances of Trump’s policies, but in essence they were right. Entering the U.S. legally has become exponentially harder since June.
“This is far more effective than a wall would have been,” said Jeremy Slack, a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso who studies migration. “Because you are essentially stopping legal migration, which is what Trump has been after the whole time.”
“Trump has totally won”
Even African migrants, who are arriving at the U.S. border in record numbers, are getting squeezed. In August, Mexico said it would stop giving them visas that allowed them to legally transit the country en route to the U.S. The move prompted days of sustained protest in Southern Mexico by hundreds of Africans who had been waiting for the visa.
“Trump has totally won,” said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s the death of access to asylum by a thousand cuts.”
Trump’s actions include limiting how many asylum seekers are accepted at ports of entry; restricting the ability of victims of domestic and gang violence to qualify for asylum; signing a deal with Guatemala that would require asylum seekers who travel through that country to first seek protection there; and making it harder for asylum seekers to receive work permits while they wait for their cases to be decided.
But the “crown jewel” of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, Leutert said, are the Migrant Protection Protocols.
More than anything else, the policy has effectively outsourced the border crisis to Mexico, while also sparing Trump from the public glare that surrounds some of his other controversial policies, including children separated from their parents and holding migrants held in outdoor holding pens.
“[It] allows the Trump administration to carry out an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe out of sight and out of mind,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council. “We have sent asylum seekers back to Mexico, and said ‘hope you don’t die. Bye, bye.’”
Even Mexican officials acknowledged that one of the major goals is to simply force migrants to retreat.
“Migrants are now seeing that it’s not so easy to apply for asylum and many of them have decided to return to their home country,” Nuevo Laredo Mayor Enrique Rivas Cuéllar told VICE News. He said Mexico and Trump have found a “great alliance” in their search for “real solutions” to deal with the influx of migrants.
But in reality, those solutions resemble a game of hot potato, with migrants being pushed from place to place, every step taking them further from their goal of legally finding asylum in the U.S.
“It’s the death of access to asylum by a thousand cuts”
For Paulina, who fled Venezuela with her husband and two boys, 13 and 5, that means only leaving her shelter in Nuevo Laredo when absolutely necessary. She believes they have a strong case for asylum, but she hasn’t been able to consult with a lawyer because they are unwilling to travel to Nuevo Laredo. Her boys haven’t attended school in three months.
“It’s so hard, because they don’t understand. They don’t see the danger,” she said. “They don’t understand why we are here and don’t pass to the U.S.”
Cover: A migrant mother and her son pose for a photo at a migrant shelter in in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. Nuevo Laredo has seen an increase in cartel activity and violence with the migrant crises. Under Trump's new policies, migrants are left to fend for themselves in some of Mexicos' most dangerous cities after being returned to Mexico. Sergio Flores/Vice News