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What’s happening to U.S. asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico

A new report from Human Rights Watch finds that the Trump administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy forces asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border to wait in crowded, unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Many said they lived in constant fear of violence, with some reporting that they had actually been attacked. Amna Nawaz speaks with Human Rights Watch's Michael Garcia Bochenek.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The fallout and the real-life implications of President Trump's immigration policies are now coming into clearer view.

    Amna Nawaz explains the findings of an alarming new report from Human Rights Watch.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, investigators found that the controversial U.S. remain-in-Mexico policy forces asylum seekers at the southern border to wait in unsafe, often crowded and unhealthy conditions. Some reported being beaten, sexually assaulted, even abducted for ransom.

    Most said they lived in constant fear and were easy targets for violence.

    Michael Garcia Bochenek of Human Rights Watch was part of the investigative team that filed the report. And he joins me now.

    Michael, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I want to start with what we know about these families who are waiting in these Mexican towns. We know this policy, colloquially, is remain in Mexico. The U.S. government calls it the Migrant Protection Protocols program.

    But these are people who U.S. officials say that Mexican authorities will take care of and provide food and shelter for. Is that what you found on the ground?

  • Michael Garcia Bochenek:

    Well, there's really no parallel to this anywhere in the world, that one country where people go to seek protection would send people to another country.

    So what the Mexican government is doing is a very credible effort at trying to make sure that people have the basics, food, shelter, a bit of clothing.

    But it's nowhere near what they need. And it's certainly not sufficient for people who are waiting for months and months for their asylum cases to be heard.

    Really, the problem is the U.S. side of things, not so much what Mexican authorities are doing or not doing, although it is, of course, the case that these places are very, very unsafe, not necessarily sanitary, overcrowded, and hugely problematic for really long periods of time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we should say, so far, we think there's about 60,000 people who have been forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border under this U.S. program. You have noted at least 16,000 of those are children.

    Describe for me, if you can, what some of those conditions are like. We listed very shortly there are people reporting being abducted or beaten or sexually assaulted. How rare were those stories?

  • Michael Garcia Bochenek:

    These stories are all too common.

    Nearly everybody is talking about harassment or about being targeted for crime, for ordinary crime, in some form or another, with the effect that a lot of people are afraid to leave the shelters where they're staying.

    In some extreme cases, we heard reports of much worse behavior, rape in some cases, sexual assault of other kinds. And what's really disturbing are people who said — who told U.S. officials that they were afraid of those very things, were told to go to Mexico in any event, regardless of their fears, and then describe being raped or being attacked as soon or almost as soon as they crossed the border into Mexico.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we should note people are waiting there for weeks at a time. Others you spoke to, six, seven, eight months, they have been waiting.

    Those thousands of children who are there — and I ask you this because you work in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch — what specific concerns do you have about the potential impact on the children in this case, who have no agency over where they are or how they live?

  • Michael Garcia Bochenek:

    It is deeply traumatic. And that was really clear from talking to the children themselves and talking to their parents.

    And I think what's really happening is the combination of factors. Children have gone through really traumatic experiences in their home countries. These are the things that caused them and their families to flee in the first place, targeted attacks, all kinds of violence that really was directed at them for who they are, for their beliefs, for refusal to join a gang, for a variety of other circumstances like this that really are not circumstances they could change or should have to change.

    They have then gone through really difficult journeys through Mexico to reach the border, often suffering many, many acts of violence, many difficulties along the way.

    And then they're told by U.S. authorities that they have to return to Mexico, wait in really precarious conditions in shelters that may or may not have space for them, and in situations where they're often afraid to leave the place where they're staying.

    And when they do go to their court appointments, they're describing processes taking hours and hours, sometimes involving detention overnight in very cold cells. And it's the sum total of all this that's really, really devastating for children.

    So, one mother told me that her son, her young son, visibly starts to shake as soon as he gets close to the bridge that crosses the border between Mexico and the U.S. And they have to do this once a month for their court hearings. They have been to four of them already, and there's no end in sight.

    So, of course, the uncertainty as well is taking a toll on them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Michael, I have to ask you.

    The administration will say, look, this is what we have found to be the most efficient way to screen people, to process them, to make sure that only those with a valid asylum claim are allowed entry. They argue, this is part of border enforcement.

    And those numbers, we should note, have been coming down dramatically over the last several months, in part because of programs like this. What do you say to that?

  • Michael Garcia Bochenek:

    This is the most damaging way possible that I can imagine to run an asylum system.

    It's certainly not efficient. It's certainly not humane. It's certainly not anything like what U.S. law requires, in our opinion.

    What really we need to see is a system that processes cases with the appropriate amount of speed, with the appropriate support and information in the United States, like every other country in the world, or nearly every other country in the world, so that people who are seeking protection in the United States have access in the United States to U.S. lawyers, to support mechanisms, to families, which, in many case, people do have, and are able to proceed with their claims in a way that's humane and fair and safe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior counsel of the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, thank you for being with us.

  • Michael Garcia Bochenek:

    Thank you.

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