Mexico as a haven for asylum seekers

As fewer Mexicans venture north, the country is working with the US to be a better haven for Central Americans fleeing fear.

Janet, an asylum seeker from Honduras, leaves Casa Antigua shelter in Brownsville, Texas, on July 10, shortly after meeting her 16-year-old daughter for first time since their separation at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Because of its strong appeal as a haven, the United States received more asylum requests than any other developed nation last year. In fact, the number jumped 26 percent to 330,000 from the year before, with about half coming from three Central American countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras).

With this US generosity under strain and migration in general fueling divisions among Americans, is there a way to share this responsibility?

Many are encouraged by the fact that the US is in talks with Mexico to assist that country – and its incoming, migrant-friendly president – in becoming an appealing refuge itself for those fleeing violence or repression in Central America.

Mexico still has far to go in how it processes asylum-seekers and protects them from abuse. Still it could become another safe harbor as well as an easier place for Central Americans to assimilate. The US already has a “safe third country agreement” with Canada to deal with asylum-seekers transiting through that country. And since 2014, the US has paid Mexico more than $90 million to beef up security at its southern border, to include better screening of asylum-seekers.

It is unclear how many Central Americans would actually seek or gain asylum in Mexico. For many years, a large majority of those seeking asylum in the US have had their claims denied. Last year, about 20 percent of 1,000 Central Americans surveyed while passing through Mexico decided to stay in the country, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. Raising that percentage even to 50 percent would help restore balance to the US as well as dampen political fights over immigration.

The mood in Mexico toward Central American migration may be shifting.

In 2016, an amendment to the country’s Constitution recognized a right to seek and be granted asylum. During the recent presidential election, the top three candidates acknowledged a moral need to welcome genuine asylum-seekers. The election winner, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who takes office Dec. 1, promised to improve Mexico’s “outrageous” treatment of undocumented Central Americans. “We criticize [President] Trump, but we [Mexicans] do the same thing with the Central American migrants,” he said.

Over the past four decades, the US has resettled more than 3.3 million refugees, the largest number of any country, and has spent millions to help those fleeing violence, such as from Myanmar. As Mexico’s economy has improves, it can join the US in being a new home to migrants fleeing fear.

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