A recent US Supreme Court decision has jeopardized the asylum claims of tens of thousands of Central American, Caribbean, African, and Asian migrants hoping to enter the United States at the southern border. The decision has brought new anguish and uncertainties to those already facing desperate conditions in Mexico.
On September 11, the court ruled 5–4 to allow the Trump administration’s new asylum restrictions to go into effect, pending ongoing litigation. With limited exceptions, the measure prohibits anyone from requesting asylum at the US–Mexico border who previously transited through another country, effectively banning all but Mexicans from seeking such protections.
The asylum ban is the latest in an escalating effort to fence off the United States from the racialized global poor, while ICE purges the country from within. In the context of mounting economic and ecological crises, we are faced with an increasingly dire choice: surrendering to global apartheid, enforced by US imperial power, or a collective struggle, guided by solidarity.
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) campaigned on a promise to respect migrants’ human rights, and in the first months of his term issued over 13,000 humanitarian visas to migrants transiting through the country to seek asylum at the US border. But the visa program was short-lived, and in June, after Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports, AMLO’s administration committed to reducing US-bound migration, deploying the newly formed National Guard to its southern border and agreeing to host US asylum seekers under what’s known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Mexico’s top migration official resigned in protest.
For Genoveva Roldán, economist and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, it’s a lose-lose situation. “Mexico is a dependent country; it doesn’t have the means, the economic autonomy [to respond to Trump’s tariff threats] like China did, to enter into a trade war with the United States,” she says. “Mexico is acting with a boot to its throat.”
The outcome of the negotiations, however, is disastrous. “With this, Mexico has already tacitly become a Safe Third Country,” says Roldán. Under international law, Safe Third Country agreements can oblige migrants to seek asylum in countries of transit that can provide them adequate protections. Mexico, plagued by organized crime, corruption, and impunity, cannot guarantee migrants’ safety, and the meager existing services and infrastructure for migrants are already overwhelmed. “They’ve put Mexico into a position where it’s not going to be able to respond,” she warns.
Xenophobia is rising across Mexico, and a humanitarian crisis rages at both borders. Mexico has detained more than 108,000 migrants in 2019, over 32,000 of them children. Tens of thousands more wait their turn to present claims at the US border through an unofficial and arbitrary metering process. US hearings are now conducted remotely in “tent courts,” further violating migrants’ right to due process and diminishing their chances of securing protections.
Since July, the Remain in Mexico program has forced more than 42,000 applicants back into Mexico to await their asylum proceedings, where they are vulnerable to kidnapping and extortion. At least fifteen children have died at the border this year.
“It’s an abomination,” says a US immigration attorney who works with migrants in Mexico, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals from Mexican and US authorities — we’ll call him Alex. “People are being killed after asking for asylum . . . It’s going to be studied in the history books as a stain. It already is a huge stain on the US.”
All this comes as the United States is pressuring vulnerable Central American countries — themselves the principal source of the current exodus — to block migrants transiting toward the United States.
Panama has resisted US overtures. Guatemala, however, appears poised to implement a Safe Third Country agreement signed by the outgoing president, despite misgivings from the president-elect. Under the deal, migrants who pass through Guatemalan territory will be required to seek asylum there; those who fail to do so will be ineligible for US protections and could be deported back to Guatemala. One of the most unequal economies in Latin America, Guatemala ranks in the top three countries of origin for US asylum seekers.
El Salvador’s new president, who recently unveiled a new, US-financed border patrol, just made a deal with DHS to become a Safe Third Country in all but name. Honduras, wracked with violence and protest since a US-backed 2009 coup d’état installed a corrupt authoritarian regime, may soon yield as well. President Juan Orlando Hernández, currently implicated in a major US narco-trafficking investigation, is in negotiations with DHS to harbor Nicaraguan and Cuban asylum seekers — and prevent them from continuing north.
As Alex points out, “these countries are in no condition to be able to house any significant number of refugees or asylees.” Devastated by decades of US-backed genocidal anticommunist wars and neoliberal economic restructuring, Central America has expelled millions of its citizens to the United States, and indeed depends on those migrants’ remittances for survival. The region boasts some of the highest homicide rates in the world, with social movement leaders particularly vulnerable to attacks. “Safe Third Countries need to be safe,” says Alex. “There will be legal challenges to this in the US, and hopefully there will continue to be some sort of opposition in Guatemala and Honduras, because these are obviously farcical.”
Life or Death
The United States hopes to render Central America and Mexico into prisons, each border another brick in Trump’s wall. Authorities are slowing the process and erecting physical and legal barriers in the hopes of discouraging migrants through attrition, or forcibly sending them back. The result is further suffering and endangerment. Migrants seeking to evade the authorities risk being preyed upon by organized crime in Mexico, drowning in the Rio Grande, or being driven into deadly deserts in the US southwest.
More than 7,000 Africans have been trapped for weeks in Tapachula, the site of Mexico’s principal migrant detention center on the southern border with Guatemala, as Mexican authorities refuse to provide them with safe passage north. Alex describes Tapachula as a “carceral city”: “There have been raids in public spaces, there’ve been raids in the hotels, so migrants aren’t as publicly visible anymore,” he says. “They’re trying to frustrate people and keep people in Tapachula, to make people fearful of being out in public. There’s a huge increase in checkpoints on the roads.”
The poorest and most vulnerable migrants, especially those who cannot afford to hire a smuggler, bear the brunt of the crackdown. Alex explains: “It creates a situation where there’s an increase in corruption, because the officers are still very much amenable to bribes. It also increases the vulnerability of women and LGBT migrants of sexual assault. And the traffickers are still getting people by that are able to pay the fees. They just charge more money and pay off the officials to be able to get through.”
For Bryan, a Honduran who separated from a caravan in January to request asylum in Mexico, the implementation of Trump’s asylum ban “will only create a darker, sadder panorama, with more deaths and many more problems for people who migrate. But in the end, they won’t stop the migration.”
Bryan volunteers at a Mexico City shelter, where he provides migrants with legal information. He stresses the urgent need for humanitarian relief, especially for the growing numbers of those returning to the country through the Remain in Mexico program. “They come back here, and they don’t have any options. They seek out shelters, and the shelters are full of people heading north.”
In a recent visit to the shelter, officials from the International Organization for Migration told Bryan that migrants are adults and responsible for their own decisions. “My response was, okay, but if you tell me I can die there or die here, what options do I have? That’s not much of a decision.”
The criminalization and mass detention and deportation of migrants in the United States was not Trump’s invention. The origins of today’s enforcement machine date back to at least the mid-1980s, but the mid-1990s marked a turning point. It’s no coincidence that the crackdown coincided with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which displaced millions of Mexican farmers.
Similarly, the externalization of US migration enforcement to Mexico began well before AMLO. Roldán notes that “Mexico has been playing this role since the ’80s, accepting that the US extend its border toward Mexico’s southern border, and that Mexico become the guardian of the US border.” Much of today’s militarization began under the Mérida Initiative in 2008 and was reinforced in 2014 with Programa Frontera Sur. Since 2015, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the United States.
Since the late 1980s, US migration controls have worked to discipline low-wage migrant labor, ensuring the availability of a population of vulnerable, deportable workers for exploitation by US capital. After the 2008 financial crisis, however, the deportation machine kicked into high gear, earning Obama the title of “Deporter in Chief.”
Under Trump, the expansion of the war on migrants has reached dystopic dimensions. The asylum ban, Remain in Mexico, and Safe Third Country agreements join the Muslim ban, threats to temporary protected status (TPS) for over 300,000 longtime US residents, and the denial of TPS to Bahamians in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. ICE is now a paramilitary force, preparing for domestic counterinsurgency warfare.
As heightening economic contradictions and climate crises provoke greater destabilization and displacement, elites are investing their spectacular surpluses in finance, offshoring, and building an imperial fortress against the dispossessed.
“These are US policies that are being shoved down other countries’ throats under the threat of tremendous economic violence,” says Alex. “People shouldn’t look away, just because it’s outside of the border . . . Our government is implementing these immoral and illegal policies.”
Migration is typically framed as an individual matter, a question of personal choice, risk, and responsibility. But migrants are on the front lines of a global class war. They are confronting a system that appropriates their land and labor but denies their humanity. It isn’t just about the right to seek asylum; there is no threshold for deservingness for human dignity. By choosing solidarity, we can affirm our common worth, and our collective power.