Eighty years ago, the St. Louis sailed from Germany with 937 passengers on board, mostly Jews fleeing from the Nazi Third Reich. They were refused entry by the United States and forced to return to Europe. Some found safety in England, Belgium, Switzerland, and France, but 532 were in areas occupied when the Nazis overran Europe, 254 died in the Holocaust.
The passengers on the St. Louis were not deported from the United States: they were refused entry because the quotas were full. Today, tens of thousands of asylum applicants wait in Mexico because “there is no room” in the United States. As they wait, many have no place to live, no permanent address at which they can receive court notices, and severely restricted access to legal assistance. Then there’s the physical danger: some asylum seekers who have been forced to remain in Mexico have been assaulted, beaten, kidnapped, raped, and even murdered.
Among Trump’s latest proposals is sending any asylum seekers who have passed through a third country on their way to the United States back to that third country. That would mean deporting all Guatemalan asylum seekers to Mexico, and all Salvadorans and Honduras to Guatemala. This violates U.S. and international law and all humanitarian standards.
Countries are allowed to turn back asylum seekers who have come from a “safe third country.” For example, Canada is allowed to turn back asylum seekers who have come from the United States, which is considered a “safe third country.” Mexico is not a safe third country. Nor, of course, is Guatemala.
Jorge Castaneda was Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003 and is now a professor at New York University. He was interviewed by Noel King on NPR.
“KING: The Trump administration has been pushing for Mexico to sign a, quote, “safe third country” agreement. Now, that would mean non-Mexican migrants would be considered safe in Mexico. And therefore, they couldn’t apply for asylum in the United States. What are the implications of that? Would Mexico be a safe place for these people?
“CASTANEDA: Well, it certainly is not a safe place for Mexicans, so I don’t see why it would be a safe place for Guatemalans. For the moment, the safe third country agreement that’s been talked about in the press today would apply only to Guatemalans, whereas Guatemala would apply the same principle to Honduras and to El Salvador, which is kind of paradoxical seeing as how – to call Guatemala a safe country for Hondurans and Salvadorans is really kind of tragic. It’s one of the most violent countries in the world right now that’s not at war.
“And as far as Mexico is concerned, we’re going through some of the worst levels of violence we have seen in recent Mexican history the last 25 or 30 years. So to consider Mexico a safe country for anybody, let alone foreigners who do not have money, who do not have protection, who do not have homes, who do not have any kind of wealth, is really a challenge. It’s not a joke because it’s too sad to call it that. Unfortunately, it seems that Mexico is going to accept the safe third country agreement, at least for Guatemalans. And this would be a real tragedy for the country.”
In another attack on asylum, the administration has ordered that Border Patrol agents, rather than asylum officers, have the authority to decide whether an asylum seeker has a “credible fear” of returning to their country. That’s a a life and death decision, assigned to Border Patrol officers, who are notoriously hostile to asylum seekers. Their job is turning people away, not letting them in. A U.S. volunteer accompanying asylum seekers to the border described what happened just before she was arrested, stripped of her shoes and belt, and thrown into a concrete cell:
“We got to the border around 3 p.m. I hung back watching to see if they’d let Reneé in, and when they didn’t, I walked up to ask what was wrong. Officer Noriega apologized — “We’re processing another family,” she said — and asked that we return in a couple of hours.
“At 5 on the dot, we were back. As soon as we showed up, a new Customs and Border Protection officer came barreling out of his office toward us. “How many?” he yelled in our direction. A guard held up one finger. “OK!” Supervisor Williams said. “One asylum-seeker, and an illegal alien smuggler.”
“He kept repeating “illegal alien smuggler” as he walked Reneé and me to the office. In a fury he told me, “You know, I could arrest you for this,” and then, “I’m going to arrest you for this.” Finally I asked him if I was under arrest. “Yes,” he replied. I handed him a letter from the ACLU and told him to call my lawyer. The supervisor threw it onto the desk and told me to tell my lawyer to come down to the port and they’d arrest him, too.”
If asylum seekers enter the United States between checkpoints, they are arrested and detained while their cases go to hearing. That may be safer than remaining in Mexico, though three deaths in custody have been reported in the past week. Detention conditions, however, can be appalling.
“The Department of Homeland Security inspector general found expired food and dilapidated bathrooms during unannounced visits to four immigrant detention facilities in 2018, according to a report released Thursday.
“The kitchen at one facility was in such poor shape — with open packages of raw chicken leaking blood over refrigeration units — that the kitchen manager was replaced while the IG inspection was ongoing….
“The IG observed unsanitary conditions in the bathrooms at the Adelanto and Essex facilities during their surprise visit. “[W]e observed detainee bathrooms that were in poor condition, including mold and peeling paint on walls, floors, and showers, and unusable toilets,” the report reads.
“Other issues raised include spoiled food, lack of provisions, like lotion, that is required for detainees, and strip searches with no documented justification. The report notes that ICE detainees “are held in civil, not criminal, custody, which is not supposed to be punitive.”
Food, medical care, and sanitation violations are bad. Worse: solitary confinement is used as punishment and “protection.” Thousands of immigrant detainees—who have not been convicted of any crime and are being held to await hearings on asylum claims—are sent to solitary confinement for weeks on end. Some are placed in solitary “solely due to a disability, many simply because they needed a wheelchair, cane, crutches, or some other aid.” Others are sent to solitary confinement because they are considered suicidal. Transgender detainees who are harassed by other prisoners are sent to solitary “for their own protection.”
Under Trump, people fleeing for their lives face punishment and persecution from the U.S. government. That’s not how asylum is supposed to work. That’s not how this country is supposed to work.