Despite making noise to the contrary, the Biden administration’s policy at the southern U.S. border looks more and more like Donald Trump Phase 2. Much like their predecessors, Biden officials deny refugees the right to appeal for asylum—and deport them right away, putting tens of thousands of desperate Central Americans and others in grave danger. A new study by Human Rights First (HRF), an advocacy group based in New York and Washington, D.C., found that there have been more than 6,000 reported kidnappings and violent attacks against asylum seekers after the U.S. sent them back to Mexico—all in the seven months since Joe Biden became president.
The stinging HRF report uses unusually strong language to argue that the Biden border policy “Endangers Lives, Wreaks Havoc.” Yet the mainstream American press is ignoring the Biden administration’s crackdown. While Biden, overall, is a vastly different president than Trump, he has deployed the same grotesque policies at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In March 2020, Trump used the COVID-19 pandemic to twist a section of a U.S. public health law called Title 42 to deny the fleeing Central Americans their right to even ask for asylum, and dumped them right back across the border. The Biden administration made some reformist declarations—and was expected to lift the order—but then kept Title 42 in effect. It even started, with the shameful collaboration of the Mexican government, putting asylum seekers on airplanes and flying them to Mexico’s far south and to a remote rain forest town in Guatemala.
In Biden’s partial defense, U.S. courts are forcing his administration to reinstall another element of Trump’s anti-refugee program: the “Remain in Mexico” policy, officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols. But Kenjii Kizuka, a lawyer at the HRF, points out that the “vast majority” of the deportees these days are pushed back under Title 42, the health measure.
Here’s some background: A few years ago, I was in the Mexican state of Vera Cruz, listening to brave local journalists who risk their lives in a region dominated by vicious drug cartels and corrupt politicians. Vera Cruz is alongside the Gulf of Mexico, and on a major northward route to the Texas border, one followed by thousands of Central Americans fleeing horrifying levels of gang violence in their home countries.
So why don’t the Central Americans stay in Mexico, protected by their physical similarities to Mexicans? As Noé Zavaleta, the local correspondent for the respected Mexico City weekly Proceso, told me, “Because the minute the Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans start talking they reveal their origins. The Central American accent is so distinct that any Mexican can tell right away where they came from.” The drug cartels have expanded into a lucrative sideline—kidnapping Central Americans and forcing them to call family members in the United States to wire ransom money. Many of the refugees already have relatives in the U.S. The refugees are forewarned—and they try to protect themselves.
Back in 2014, a young Honduran woman named Esperanza Ramirez explained to me after she and her three-year-old daughter safely reached McAllen, Texas, that she had written the phone number of her sister in Long Island on a tiny concealed piece of paper—so if the narcos grabbed her, she could pretend that she knew no one north of the Rio Grande.
The narco kidnappers have an even easier time now that the Biden administration is deporting thousands to makeshift camps just south of the border, where they remain stuck for months. The drug gangs place spies, called halcones, or “hawks,” just outside the camps. Kizuka says that refugees are kidnapped if they even walk a block out of the camps to buy food.
Kizuka is the coauthor of the comprehensive 34-page HRF report, published on August 24. HRF staffers interviewed 65 refugees in person, and talked to over 50 more by phone, to yield the frightening figure of “6356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks against people blocked at ports of entry or expelled to Mexico by the Department of Homeland Security since President Biden took office.” The report said the U.S. Border Patrol “continues to expel hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers each night . . . often after 11 p.m.” across the Rio Grande to Reynosa, Mexico. The deportees arrive without shoelaces, which the Border Patrol confiscates when it takes them into custody on the American side of the border. The HRF report warns that the “practice of expelling people in large groups with their shoelaces removed clearly marks them as migrants, making them even more vulnerable to attack.”
Further, the HRF charges the Biden administration with violating both international refugee protection law and U.S. statutes. “Keeping people out of the U.S. by using Title 42 is the misuse of a public health law,” Kizuka says. “And denying them the right to even ask for asylum violates the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980.” The report dismisses the COVID-19 excuse by saying the U.S. could “adopt sensible measures long recommended by epidemiologists and public health experts to safely restart asylum processing.”
This is an issue rarely covered in the national press anymore. Luckily, though, the eastern Texas border towns in the Rio Grande Valley are blessed with excellent local newspapers, including the Herald in Brownsville and The Monitor in McAllen. Valerie Gonzalez, an impressive reporter at The Monitor, crossed into Mexico recently for her in-depth report from the Reynosa refugee encampment, where 2,000 people are huddling under tents and “thin plastic tarps” in a central plaza. She found a pervasive fear of kidnapping among the refugees. Some showed her “videos of migrant families kneeling beside people standing off-camera holding guns to their heads.” She learned that a number of children had tried to kill themselves. People were afraid to leave what had become an open-air prison because “criminal organizations surrounding and infiltrating the area keep many locked in place,” Gonzalez wrote.
Sister Norma Pimentel of the Missionaries of Jesus manages the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, which has been welcoming refugees for seven years. Anyone who meets her is struck by her warm manner and optimistic outlook. I met Sister Norma in June 2014, when I visited the border to report on the beginning of the crisis.
The Washington Post recently published her open letter to President Biden, to whom she appealed partly as “a fellow Catholic.” She told him about the “dire conditions” at the encampment in Reynosa, and she urged him to stop deporting asylum seekers to countries where a precarious fate awaits them. “It is immoral and abhorrent,” she wrote, “to deter people who are legally and peacefully seeking safety in the United States by deliberately exposing them to the very perils that they are hoping to escape.”