Biden’s New Border Policies Will Put Further Strain on Mexico’s Struggling Asylum System
A Changing U.S. Border
On February 23, 2023, the Joe Biden administration proposed a new border policy to replace Title 42, a pandemic-era measure that bans migrants from entering the United States to prevent the spread of contagious diseases, with the expectation that Title 42 will be lifted on May 11. The proposed policy, available for public comment for 30 days before it takes effect, will make migrants ineligible to apply for asylum in the U.S. if they entered the country irregularly or if they failed to apply for asylum in another country along their journey. Migrants arriving at the border will only be admitted into the U.S. if they schedule an appointment to present themselves at the border through a U.S. Customs and Border Control app called CBP One, or if they prove that they were ineligible for asylum in the countries through which they transited. If approved, this new policy will remain in effect for two years.
The transit ban proposal had already been announced earlier this year, when the Biden administration decided to extend its humanitarian parole program for Venezuelans to migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba, and Haiti. It harkens back to former President Donald Trump’s “safe third country” policies — specifically, the asylum cooperation agreements signed with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — which established that migrants who had transited through these countries could be returned under the premise that they should have applied for protection there instead of in the United States. Despite claims by the Biden administration that the new policy is the only way to “ensure orderly, safe and humane processing of migrants at our border” without congressional reform, human rights defenders have heavily criticized the new strategy — particularly since Biden had vowed to follow a humane approach toward migration and put an end to Trump-era immigration policies.
With these hardened measures to access asylum in the U.S., it is likely that some migrants will turn to other countries for protection, with Mexico being the most likely choice. But how prepared is Mexico — and particularly its asylum system — to accept even more asylum seekers than it is already receiving?
In this brief, we draw on interviews with Mexico-based civil society organizations and secondary analysis to examine the historical impact of U.S. border externalization policies on Mexico, the issues currently facing Mexico’s asylum system, and the anticipated consequences of the new U.S. policy for Mexico.
Geopolitical Background: Increased Border Militarization and Politicization of Migration
The U.S. has cooperated with Mexico to prevent U.S.-bound migration since at least the late 1980s, but the Mérida Initiative, created in 2007 and expanded in 2011, was a turning point in the use of U.S. foreign assistance to prevent irregular migrants (as well as narcotics) from reaching the southern U.S. border. As part of the initiative, the U.S. funded the upgrading of Mexico’s migration control databases under the condition that the information would be shared with U.S. authorities. The U.S. also financially supported the development of Programa Frontera Sur, Mexico’s southern border program, in 2014; this program deployed federal officials to Mexico’s southern border, which was bolstered by U.S. training of Mexican agents and the provision of scanning units, canine patrols, and mobile migration control posts.
According to interviewees, rather than preventing transit migration through Mexico, these initiatives collectively made travel — and specifically travel by train — more deadly for migrants. The programs also politicized the issue of migration in Mexico, since migrants were often unable to complete their journeys by train and had to stay for extended periods in cities throughout the country, making them more visible to local populations.
While Andrés Manuel López Obrador began his presidential term in late 2018 promising a new, less securitized approach to the domestic issue of migration in Mexico, he quickly made an about-face. Migration was becoming more politicized as a result of the presence of caravans (migrants traveling in large groups together through the country), and in late 2018, threats from the Trump administration led López Obrador to agree to the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) in January 2019. Under the program, asylum seekers attempting to cross irregularly to the U.S. could be returned to Mexico and forced to wait there for their claims to be assessed. Several months later, in June 2019, the López Obrador administration also agreed to the signing of the U.S.-Mexico Joint Declaration; this agreement committed Mexico to deploy its National Guard throughout the country, particularly to its southern border, to prevent migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras from transiting through Mexico to the United States. Under the declaration, Mexico also agreed to expand the nationalities of asylum seekers that could be returned to Mexico under the MPP.
Mexico's Strained Asylum System
Data shows that Mexico has increasingly become a country of destination for migrants and refugees, rather than only a transit country. In fact, for the past two years Mexico has been among the countries receiving the highest numbers of asylum applications globally, coming after only the U.S. and Germany. This upward trend in asylum requests has been continuing since 2018 (with the exception of 2020, when they decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Almost 119,000 asylum applications were filed in 2022; this is a slight decrease from the number filed in 2021 (close to 130,000), but almost double and quadruple the numbers from 2019 and 2018, respectively (70,000 and 30,000). This increase is due in great part to the growing impossibility of accessing asylum in the U.S. following measures implemented under Trump, such as the MPP or Title 42.
The increase in asylum applications has put a great deal of strain on Mexico’s refugee assistance agency, known as COMAR (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados), which is responsible for adjudicating asylum claims and determining refugee status in Mexico. COMAR has been underfunded by the Mexican government for several years, and its budget has not kept pace with the rising number of applications. In 2019, although the number of asylum applications doubled compared to the previous year, COMAR’s budget was reduced from $US1.3 million to $US1 million. In 2020 and 2021, the budget was increased to close to $US2 million, but according to COMAR officials, this amount is insufficient even for operational expenses. Year after year, the backlog keeps growing — with some asylum seekers waiting over two years for the agency to resolve their claims.
COMAR has had to turn to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, for funding to strengthen its capacity. The UNHCR has provided support to COMAR to hire more staffers and to open new offices. Currently, there are 10 offices, up from the three that existed in 2019. Thanks to this support, COMAR was able to increase its processing capacity by 116% between 2020 and 2021 — going from approximately 20,500 asylum case determinations in 2019 to nearly 38,000 in 2021.
Despite the improvements in recent years, COMAR still lacks the capacity to handle the rise in asylum claims, and more funding is and will continue to be needed in the months and years ahead. For instance, in January 2023 alone, Mexico received 12,863 asylum applications — a 120% increase compared to January 2022 and a 97% increase compared to January 2021. An interviewee at an international organization explained that while Mexican law stipulates that a refugee status application be processed in 45 working days, refugees regularly end up having to wait several months and sometimes even longer than a year to receive a determination, which the interviewee attributed to understaffing at COMAR. If the rise in claims continues and no additional resources are allocated to COMAR, the agency may find itself in a dire situation, one that will ultimately result in asylum seekers having to wait even longer to have their claims processed.
Mexico’s Emphasis on Enforcement and Securitization Puts Asylum Seekers at Risk
Although COMAR oversees Mexico’s refugee system, general migration issues are managed by the country’s National Migration Institute, or INM (Instituto Nacional de Migración), including enforcement and the issuance of humanitarian visas. In theory, the INM has a legal mandate to assist and collaborate with COMAR, but its practices tell a different story. For example, according to international and Mexican law, asylum seekers have the right to apply for asylum at border crossings — but as COMAR does not have any presence at border points, they are frequently turned away by INM agents or instructed to cross between ports of entry and apply for asylum at the already overwhelmed COMAR offices. This is partly an issue of deprioritization. The director of one nongovernmental organization explained:
“The foreign ministry right now really has a lot of influence on immigration policy, which wasn’t the case in other administrations. I think the perspective of the foreign ministry is that people don’t stay in Mexico, so why are we going to invest more money in COMAR? I think that we’re just in this vicious cycle because how do you know people aren’t going to stay if you never give them an opportunity to stay?”
But is it also an issue of prioritizing security-based solutions. As the director of another NGO explained, “INM receives a lot of money for detention centers, and the COMAR is not receiving resources. ... [The government spends] on detention and deportation [and] migratory control.” As previously noted, the López Obrador administration has stepped up its immigration enforcement due to pressure from the United States. The measures implemented to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. include the deployment of 7,300 National Guard members to Mexico’s southern and northern borders in 2021 and the imposition of a visa requirement for Brazilian, Venezuelan, and Ecuadorian nationals, as migrants from these countries have been reaching the southern U.S. border in greater numbers than before.
Respondents emphasized that asylum seekers are oftentimes not even given the opportunity to apply for asylum. As one NGO director stated, “In the best case [scenario], they are arrested and sent to a detention center. In the worst case, they are deported [immediately].” Civil society organizations also mentioned the difficulty of appealing to current INM director Francisco Garduño Yáñez, who comes from a carceral background, to take a less securitized approach. One employee of Mexico’s Secretary of Home Affairs (Secretaría de Gobernación) explained that on the issue of migration, “The army has the real power. The army always had power, but now under this president they’re emboldened. This is why it’s so hard to break out of the security focus.”
Asylum Seekers Face High Barriers to Integration in Mexico
Integration challenges in Mexico are especially pronounced due to the difficulty of accessing documentation. Once asylum seekers have registered with COMAR, they have the right to apply for a humanitarian visa at the INM while they wait for their asylum case to be resolved and to obtain an ID number, known as a CURP (clave única de registro de población). A CURP is necessary to obtain work, open a bank account, and access education and health services, but according to representatives of civil society organizations, they are difficult for asylum seekers to obtain. Even when they are able to acquire one, they experience numerous challenges finding work and accessing services, especially in Mexico’s southern states.
Chiapas, the southern border state where most individuals apply for asylum, has one of the highest poverty rates in the country and fewer work opportunities than other parts of the country. Seventy percent and 68% of all applications in 2021 and 2022, respectively, were filed there. According to Mexican law, asylum seekers must remain in the state where they applied for asylum until their case is resolved, unless they request an exemption (though exemptions are rarely granted). As a representative from an international organization explained, the process is “supposed to last three months, but in reality, it could take way more,” hampering integration opportunities for asylum seekers. In 2021, due to the increasing numbers of Haitian migrants arriving in Mexico, the INM started a transfer program that bused migrants from Tapachula, Chiapas, to other states in Mexico so that they could apply for asylum in less overwhelmed INM and COMAR offices. However, this program was heavily criticized for of its lack of clarity and coordination with other government agencies and civil society organizations.
Mexico has taken steps to increase migrant and refugee integration in recent years, with one example being UNHCR’s Local Integration Program (Programa de Integración Local), which relocates refugees from southern states to eight cities in central and northern Mexico to take advantage of greater job opportunities and more developed health and education systems. While this program has proved effective (it has already assisted over 10,000 refugees), it is not applicable to individuals whose asylum applications are still pending.
Anticipated Impact of New Asylum Regulation
The new proposed U.S. asylum regulation is already impacting Mexico’s domestic policy decisions. In late February 2023, COMAR launched a pilot program in the country’s southern states to try to expedite asylum denials for individuals who only apply for asylum in Mexico to receive documents that allow them to then more safely travel onward to the United States. These individuals ultimately abandon their asylum applications once they reach the U.S. border, putting unnecessary strain on Mexico’s struggling asylum system.
Only a few weeks after the pilot program started, COMAR announced plans to suspend it. Under the U.S. asylum regulation proposed by the Biden administration, an individual will need to have been denied protection in a third country through which they transited in order to be eligible for asylum in the United States. COMAR fears that accelerating asylum denials may encourage more migrants to apply for asylum in Mexico — only to be denied — in order to apply for asylum in the U.S. under the premise that their initial claim was denied in Mexico.
Ultimately, U.S. asylum policy has acute impacts on Mexico’s migration strategies. The Biden administration and U.S. officials should bear this in mind and recognize that the issue of migration cannot be simply externalized and contained below the U.S. border.
Even if further economic investments were made to increase COMAR’s capacity to process asylum claims, broader structural issues and barriers to a safe and protective environment for asylum seekers remain. INM has been accused of colluding with criminal networks, and migrants and asylum seekers across Mexico are at increased risk of trafficking, exploitation, and even death. One migrant shelter in Mexico City relayed the story of a group of Nicaraguan nationals who were ultimately trafficked while attempting to travel through Mexico; they were tricked by members of a cartel impersonating INM officials in the state of Veracruz.
As long as corruption and lack of accountability remain unaddressed within the INM and Mexico’s other governmental institutions, Mexico should not be considered a safe third country to which to return migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
 John Gramlich, “Key Facts About Title 42, the Pandemic Policy that has Reshaped Immigration Enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico Border,” Pew Research Center, April 27, 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/04/27/key-facts-about-title-42-the-pandemic-policy-that-has-reshaped-immigration-enforcement-at-u-s-mexico-border/.
 Miriam Jordan, “Biden Administration Announces New Border Crackdown,” New York Times, February 21, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/21/us/biden-asylum-rules.html; U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, A.G. Order No. 5605–2023, “Circumvention of Lawful Pathways,” February 23, 2023, https://public-inspection.federalregister.gov/2023-03718.pdf.
 Kelsey P. Norman. 2023. How Biden’s New Border Policy Hurts Asylum Seekers. Policy brief no. 01.09.23. Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, Houston, Texas. https://doi.org/10.25613/S2M6-E140.
 Myah Ward, “Biden to replace Trump migration policy with Trump-esque asylum policy,” Politico, February 21, 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/2023/02/21/biden-trump-migration-policy-asylum-00083873.
 This includes 16 semi-structured interviews conducted between June and August 2022 in Mexico City with civil society organizations, Mexican government authorities, and officials at international migration organizations. This research was approved by Rice University’s Institutional Review Board (Study #IRB-FY2021-216) and was funded by a Puentes Visiting Fellowship with the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey. Thank you to Sophia Lima, Alizay Azeem, and Emelia Gauch for assistance with interview transcriptions.
 Clare Ribando Seelke, Merida Initiative for Mexico and Central America: Funding and Policy Issues, CRS Report R40135 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2009), https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/R40135.pdf.
 Clare Ribando Seelke, “Mexico: Evolution of the Mérida Initiative, FY2008-FY2022,” Congressional Research Service, 2021, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/IF10578.pdf; David FitzGerald, Refuge beyond Reach: How Rich Democracies Repel Asylum Seekers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).
 Bill Frelick, Ian M. Kysel, and Jennifer Podkul, “The Impact of Externalization of Migration Controls on the Rights of Asylum Seekers and Other Migrants,” Journal on Migration and Human Security 4, no. 4 (2016): 190–220; FitzGerald, Refuge beyond Reach: How Rich Democracies Repel Asylum Seekers.
 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “2021 Highlights UNHCR Mexico: Protection and Solutions in the Pandemic,” April 2022, https://bit.ly/3ZUVsNQ.
 Data obtained from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), https://www.gob.mx/comar.
 Human Rights Watch, “Mexico: Asylum Seekers Face Abuses at Southern Border,” Human Rights Watch (blog), June 6, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/06/06/mexico-asylum-seekers-face-abuses-southern-border.
 Rachel Schmidtke, “A New Way Forward: Strengthening the Protection Landscape in Mexico,” Refugees International, November 12, 2020, https://www.refugeesinternational.org/reports/2020/11/9/a-new-way-forward-strengthening-the-protection-landscape-in-mexico.
 UNHCR Mexico, “Contacta a la COMAR,” ACNUR México, accessed March 9, 2023, https://help.unhcr.org/mexico/donde-encontrar-ayuda/contacta-a-la-comar/.
 Stephanie Brewer, Lesly Tejada, and Maureen Meyer, Struggling to Survive: The Situation of Asylum Seekers in Tapachula, Mexico (Washington, D.C.: Washington Office on Latin America, June 2022), https://bit.ly/3mKXuSm.
 Data obtained from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) https://www.gob.mx/comar.
 Brewer, Tejada, and Meyer, Struggling to Survive: The Situation of Asylum Seekers in Tapachula, Mexico.
 The Washington Office on Latin America, “Key Points on Access to Asylum in Mexico, Protections for Migrant Children, and U.S. Cooperation,” WOLA, March 23, 2021, https://www.wola.org/analysis/key-points-migration-march-2021/.
 Rachel Schmidtke, “A New Way Forward.”
 Data obtained from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) https://www.gob.mx/comar.
 Yael Schacher and Rachel Schmidtke, Pushed into the Shadows: Mexico’s Reception of Haitian Migrants (Washington, D.C.: Refugees International, April 28, 2022), https://www.refugeesinternational.org/reports/2022/4/25/pushed-into-the-shadows-mexicos-reception-of-haitian-migrants.
 UNHCR, “Mexico: Relocations for Refugee Integration Top 10,000 Mark,” UNHCR, June 8, 2021, https://bit.ly/4012a4Q.
 Rosa Flores, “Mexico rethinks asylum initiative after controversial US announcement,” CNN, February 24, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/02/24/americas/mexico-asylum-policy-intl-latam/index.html.
 Edgar H. Clemente and Maria Verza, “Thriving Network of Fixers Preys on Migrants Crossing Mexico,” AP, December 28, 2022, http://bit.ly/3LkX0wt.
 Mixed Migration Centre, Safety Risks and Dangerous Locations Reported by Refugees and Migrants in Mexico,” MMC Latin America and the Caribbean, February 2022, https://bit.ly/3l8Nvps.
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