Mexico is rethinking its approach toward asylum seekers after the Biden administration unveiled a controversial new proposal to limit asylum eligibility in the United States.
Mexico’s refugee assistance agency, known as COMAR, launched a pilot program in southern Mexico on Monday to explore expediting asylum denials to those it deems likely to travel onward to the US.
The aim is to deter those migrants from accessing temporary documents issued by COMAR while their cases are being evaluated, which they might use to travel north – a common phenomenon, according to COMAR’s head Andrés Ramírez.
But after the Biden administration announced its proposed new asylum rules on Tuesday, COMAR plans to abandon the strategy and use what it learned from the pilot program to come up with a different solution, Ramírez said.
The US proposal – which has been panned by human rights advocates and immigration experts – largely bars migrants who have not taken a legal pathway and instead traveled through other countries on their way to the US southern border from applying for asylum in the US. It would take effect in May.
Among its proposed new conditions on eligibility for US asylum: being denied protection in a third country through which they traveled.
Ramírez now worries that accelerating asylum denials could actually increase Mexico’s attractiveness as a pit stop for those ultimately aiming to request asylum in the US.
“The new policy that was recently announced [by the United States] changes the whole thing. We need to rethink it,” Ramírez said.
Migrant numbers at the US-Mexico border have been on the rise since last year, with increasing numbers of people from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia – many fleeing repressive government and stark economic pressures.
Though the one-week pilot program did not include actually issuing swift denials, it studied behaviors of individuals from nationalities deemed by COMAR most likely to be traveling for economic reasons rather than for international protection – Senegalese and Angolan migrants in particular, according to Ramírez.
By Mexican law, asylum seekers are required to stay in the state where they filed for asylum to see the process through.
Once registered with COMAR, asylum seekers are provided with deportation protection, access to the public health care system and work eligibility.
Ramírez says that his agency recently noticed that many migrants who began the asylum process in the city of Tapachula, in southern Mexico, later abandoned the process. They used a preliminary COMAR document to travel within the country toward its northern border.
“They are abusing the system,” said Ramírez. “That shows us that many of these people are not really interested in (Mexico’s) refugee system and the asylum procedure.”
He estimated that in Tapachula, Mexico about 70% of the individuals from countries other than Haiti were abusing the system.
Haitians, he said, have been continuing with the local asylum process there at a higher rate.
Mexico has received a surge of asylum applications in recent years, Ramírez says.
In January 2023, nearly 13,000 people signed up to seek asylum in Mexico, according to COMAR data. That’s more than double the number of asylum registrations from one year ago in January 2022, the data shows.
If applications continue at this pace, 2023 could be on track to becoming the refugee agency’s busiest year ever.
The record for most applications ever was set in 2021, he said, when COMAR received nearly 130,000 asylum applications.
“We were at the risk of collapsing. It was terrible,” Ramírez said.
His priority now is to figure out a way to prevent the asylum system in Mexico from being overwhelmed, he says.
After the results of this week’s experiment documenting the behaviors of individuals who likely qualified for expedited denials is analyzed, his team will submit proposals with new solutions to combat what they see as abuses of the system – an approach that Ramírez says will ultimately allow COMAR to prioritize asylum seekers who intend to make Mexico home.
“For us it’s very important to take care of the asylum system in Mexico,” Ramírez said. “If the asylum system is collapsed, then we’re done.”