“Migrants Could Be Caught In The Middle”: An Internal DHS Email Details Potential Dangers For Asylum-Seekers In Mexico

Immigrants sent back to dangerous border towns in Mexico while trying to obtain asylum face gang violence, rape, and kidnapping.

The email sent from a lead State Department official in Mexico on March 18 is blunt: The US should temporarily stop sending asylum-seekers to the dangerous border city of Nuevo Laredo due to the deteriorating security situation there.

In the email, the official says that Mexican government workers were not able to fill gas tanks as criminal networks were threatening to “burn down any station” caught selling to them.

The email describes how immigrants escorted in the area under the protection of the Mexican National Guard were attracting a lot of attention, which could put them in the crosshairs of criminal networks angry with the government.

Under the US program, known as Remain in Mexico, immigrants are sent back to Mexico where they are forced to remain for the duration of their asylum cases. Those turned back to Nuevo Laredo are offered bus trips to other areas in Mexico with the protection of the Mexican National Guard. The immigrants are later brought back inside the US, also with National Guard protection, for court hearings.

“[In] the event that the criminal networks want to retaliate against [the government of Mexico] … migrants could be caught in the middle,” Stephanie Syptak-Ramnath, a lead official in the US embassy in Mexico City, wrote in the email, which was intended for Blas Nuñez-Neto, the top DHS official running border policies for the Biden administration.

The latest spate of violence in Nuevo Laredo began when Juan Gerardo Treviño, who faced extradition to the US on alleged crimes such as murder, was arrested by the Mexican government, according to Reuters. Afterward, trailers were burned in the city and even the US consulate was struck with gunfire, prompting it to shut down.

As of March 18, US government personnel were under curfews and movement restrictions, according to a security alert on the local consul general’s website. The State Department is also recommending that American travelers not travel to the region, reporting that gun battles, homicides, and kidnapping were common along the border.

“Heavily armed members of criminal groups often patrol areas of the state and operate with impunity, particularly along the border region from Reynosa to Nuevo Laredo. In these areas, local law enforcement has limited capacity to respond to incidents of crime,” the recommendation states.

The email reviewed by BuzzFeed News documents the severe security problems plaguing the Mexican border city, which sits across from Laredo in Texas. But it also highlights the inherent complications surrounding a program that began under the Trump administration. Late last year, President Joe Biden was forced to resume the program, also known as the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), following a federal court order.

A DHS official confirmed that the agency had “temporarily paused the court-ordered reimplementation of MPP in the Laredo sector to ensure the safety of migrants in light of recent violence in Nuevo Laredo.” The email obtained by BuzzFeed News recommends resuming sending immigrants to Nuevo Laredo on March 28 if the security situation has been resolved.

Since the return of Remain in Mexico, hundreds of immigrants have been forced back across the border, with a small portion of them being sent to Nuevo Laredo. Immigrant advocates, along with those within the Biden administration, have long criticized the program as violating the law by blocking immigrants from full access to the US asylum system. Administration officials have also said the program places immigrants in dangerous situations in Mexico where the US is limited in its ability to help.

“Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas has repeatedly stated that MPP has endemic flaws, imposed unjustifiable human costs, pulled resources and personnel away from other priority efforts, and failed to address the root causes of irregular migration. DHS, however, is under a court order to reimplement MPP, which it continues to fight in the courts, including in a challenge before the Supreme Court,” a DHS spokesperson said in a statement. “In the interim, the Department is required to abide by the order to re-implement the program in good faith. As it does so, the Department is committed to implementing MPP in the most humane way possible.”

Immigrant advocates have felt that Remain in Mexico had largely avoided the level of outrage it deserved after more than 60,000 asylum-seekers were sent back as part of former president Donald Trump’s plan to deter migration at the southern border. While in Mexico, those immigrants faced rape, kidnappings, and murder, according to groups who documented the problems.

The email to Nuñez-Neto documents how the conditions in parts of the Mexican border continue to remain precarious.

“I think this highlights once again how dangerous this particular city is,” said Stephanie Leutert, a former Biden administration official and the director of the Central America and Mexico Policy Initiative at the University of Texas. “We know that the entire border can be really dangerous for migrants, but Nuevo Laredo has a unique security environment where people returned there are especially vulnerable for crimes by the criminal group that controls the territory.”

Leutert wrote a report in December that found that there were more than 130 people who had been kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo after being sent there under the Remain in Mexico program. Between 2019 and 2021, more than 11,500 people were sent to the border city, according to the report. Leutert found that the kidnapped immigrants included families and people from Honduras, Cuba, Venezuela, and elsewhere. She also documented how those forced back under Title 42 — an obscure public health law that was invoked to stop the spread of COVID — had also been kidnapped.

“With each new U.S. policy that sends individuals back to Nuevo Laredo, there is a new migrant population that is at-risk for being kidnapped,” she wrote. “Over the long term, the only way to reduce these kidnappings is for the Mexican government to foster sustainable improvements in the security situation or for the U.S. government to stop returning people to the city. However, in the meantime, migrant kidnappings in Nuevo Laredo are likely to continue.”

The return of the Remain in Mexico policy was something the Biden administration has long opposed publicly.

In August, US District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ordered the government to restart the program until it could be rescinded in compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act. His order went into effect shortly afterward.

Earlier in 2021, the Biden administration began to undo MPP by allowing thousands of people caught up in Remain in Mexico to come to the US. And in June, Mayorkas issued a memo officially ending the policy. The case has since moved to the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments later this spring.

The program has also come under heavy criticism within the government. The union representing asylum officers wrote in a statement that the policy’s return will make officers “complicit in violations of U.S. federal law and binding international treaty obligations of non-refoulement that they have sworn to uphold.”

The Biden administration has highlighted many changes with the new version of Remain in Mexico. These include improved access to legal representatives, more information about the program given to immigrants, and a speedier court hearing process. But perhaps most consequential will be the practice of border officials asking questions to figure out if immigrants are fearful of being returned to Mexico, which was not the case under Trump. Immigrants who say yes will have the opportunity to be screened by asylum officers to prove their claim.

Under the new DHS guidance, vulnerable immigrants, such as those with known physical or mental issues or of advanced age, will be exempted from Remain in Mexico. An internal government report obtained by BuzzFeed News found that while those with “known physical/mental health issues” were also prohibited under the Trump version of MPP from being sent back, border officials placed them in the program anyway.

The Trump administration implemented the controversial program in early 2019 amid a surge of families crossing the border and claiming asylum. At the time, the US was seeing upward of 100,000 border crossings a month.