The United States asylum system, already restrictive under Trump administration policies, has largely ground to a halt under the coronavirus pandemic, potentially forcing migrants to turn to Mexico’s system for protection.
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Mexico’s much smaller agency is continuing to process asylum applications for now, while limiting the number of staff in its offices.
The agency, Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, known by its abbreviation COMAR, was receiving a significant increase in requests for protection over the past few years due to earlier, non-coronavirus related policy changes in the U.S. However, in the past week, those applications have dropped off sharply as coronavirus concerns in Mexico increased.
Still, the head of COMAR, Andrés Ramírez Silva, said even with Mexico’s tightening recommendations on movement amid the growing public health crisis, he would keep doors open to asylum seekers for as long as he could.
“For now, we’re going to keep working until the end, until they tell us, ‘no,'” Ramírez said in Spanish in a phone interview.
He considers his agency to be among the essential government offices that need to stay open even as everything else closes for the foreseeable future.
That’s in stark contrast to the policy that the United States — as well as Canada and some European countries — has taken with newly arrived asylum seekers during the pandemic.
Ports of entry have stopped processing completely from the wait lists of asylum seekers in Mexican border cities. Over the past couple of years, those lists had ballooned to tens of thousands of people under a policy known as “metering” that already limited how many would be taken in on a given day.
In recent weeks, Border Patrol started an immediate turnback policy that allows agents to immediately deport Mexicans and Central Americans to Mexico after catching them crossing the border illegally. The migrants are not taken to Border Patrol stations but rather are fingerprinted where they are caught and then taken to ports of entry to be returned.
Mexico has agreed to take in Central Americans with the premise that they might apply for asylum there instead. But people from other countries who are caught crossing illegally are quickly put on deportation flights back to their home countries, according to the new policy.
Most of the turnbacks under the new policy in the San Diego-Tijuana region have been Mexican citizens, according to an official with the Mexican Consulate in San Diego.
From March 20 through Wednesday evening, 34 of the 903 people returned were Central American, the official said. That’s a little less than 4 percent.
Mexico’s asylum agency is much smaller than the U.S. system. Historically, not many migrants passing through the country have requested asylum there, in part because many of the types of persecution that they’re fleeing are also present in Mexico — such as gang violence and attacks based on sexual orientation or indigenous heritage.
In recent years, the number of migrants, mostly Central Americans, asking Mexico for protection has gone up as the willingness of the United States to accept them has dropped.
Until the pandemic subsides, applying for asylum in Mexico may be their only option.
About two-thirds of COMAR employees are working from home, Ramírez said. That means Tijuana’s already small office, the only asylum office in a city that borders the United States, is staffed by two people.
But Ramírez said even with the turnbacks, he doesn’t expect many migrants to come as fears about the virus and movement restrictions increase. On Saturday, Mexicans were urged to stay home for a month.
Though asylum applications have been up this year in reaction to increased restrictions in the United States, they dropped dramatically in the last week of March, Ramírez said.
He pointed out that many of the Central American countries that migrants have been coming from in larger numbers in recent years have completely closed their borders due to the pandemic.
Even with that drop, COMAR received 5,300 asylum applications in March, according to data the agency released on Wednesday. That’s 11 percent more than March 2019 and more than double what it received in March 2018.
In the first three months of 2020, asylum applications in Mexico were up 34 percent from 2019 and 279 percent more than what the country received in 2018.
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