“Every time I see my daughters suffering here, I feel a lump in my throat. I cry during the nights.”
That is how a mother from Honduras describes her life in Piedras Negras, a Mexican city across the border from the US state of Texas, after she was expelled from the United States last month with her two- and seven-year-old daughters and other members of her family. Members of a gang she had testified against in Honduras tracked her to Mexico, she said, fuelling fears of violence.
A family from El Salvador that was attacked in Mexico by a gang that had threatened to kill them in their home country, also was sent back from the US-Mexico border to Tijuana in February. “I don’t feel safe. I’m so afraid. It’s a dangerous place,” said the father, who added he recently witnessed a kidnapping while waiting for the bus.
A 14-year-old boy from Cuba, expelled to Mexico from the US in February with his grandmother, is so fearful and anxious they will be abducted by smugglers, that he has started to chew off his fingernails. “Please tell the president to take mercy on us,” his grandmother said.
These are just some of the stories shared in a new report, released this week by three US-based rights groups, that details the experiences of migrants and asylum seekers stuck at the US-Mexico border or expelled from the US under a Trump-era policy called Title 42.
“That Title 42 continues to be affirmed as a public health measure is deeply troubling,” said Nicole Ramos, director of the border rights project at Al Otro Lado, a legal and humanitarian aid group.
Speaking during a Tuesday afternoon news conference, Ramos said volunteers are receiving increasing numbers of reports that migrants and asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, have been kidnapped by organised crime groups and held for ransom.
“Our staff receives videos of asylum seekers with guns pointed at their head; children held over the mouths of barking dogs – all being threatened that if their families do not pay … that they will be killed and the parts of their bodies scattered, never to be recuperated or identified,” she said.
492 attacks since late January
First invoked by ex-President Donald Trump in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Title 42 allows US authorities to rapidly expel most migrants who arrive at the US border on the pretext of public health.
While President Joe Biden is no longer using Title 42 to deport unaccompanied minors who arrive at the border, most families and single adults are being sent back either to Mexico or to their home countries. Of the more than 172,000 people apprehended at the border by US authorities last month, more than 103,000 were expelled under Title 42, according to US border agency data.
Biden administration officials have defended US policies at the border with Mexico, saying they are rebuilding an asylum system that was dismantled by Trump and extending federal resources to deal with the many unaccompanied minors arriving.
Biden has also pledged to help address the “root causes” of migration from southern Mexico and Central America, where most of the asylum seekers are coming from.
But Tuesday’s report, titled, Failure to Protect, and released by Al Otro Lado, Human Rights First and the Haitian Bridge Alliance, urges the administration to completely rescind Title 42, which the groups said exposes migrants and asylum seekers to serious danger.
Migrants from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been expelled under Title 42, along with Haitians, Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Nigerians, and Yemenis, among many others, the report found.
Since January 21, the day after Biden was inaugurated, at least 492 reports of violent attacks against people stuck at the US-Mexico border or expelled to Mexico from the US have been reported, it said.
“Asylum seekers turned back to Mexico are being kidnapped, raped and assaulted,” said Kennji Kizuka, associate director of research and analysis for refugee protection at Human Rights First during the news conference.
Black migrants and asylum seekers, as well as members of the LGBTQ community, were particularly at risk of violence, the report also found.
“Many asylum seekers afraid to wait longer in Mexico have been injured attempting to cross the border away from ports of entry to request protection. Some have tragically lost their lives during these crossings,” said Kizuka.
The report came after the United Nations child rights agency (UNICEF) reported that Mexico has seen a massive increase in the number of migrant children arriving so far this year, from 380 to about 3,500 since the start of the year.
The rights group said about half of the children are without their parents, while many are living in cramped shelters.
“Most of the shelter facilities I visited in Mexico are already overcrowded and cannot accommodate the increasing number of children and families migrating northward,” Jean Gough, UNICEF’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said on Monday.
“We are deeply concerned that living conditions for migrant children and mothers in Mexico could soon deteriorate further.”
On Wednesday, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said his government plans to bolster its southern border in response to the increase in migrant arrivals, the Reuters news agency reported.
Mexico also intends to open more shelters, said Lopez Obrador, adding that one child is now crossing the border for every three or four migrant adults.