The Mexican government said some 15,000 people who have claimed asylum at the U.S. border have been returned to Mexico, pending a court hearing. And according to Human Rights Watch, the migrants include families with children and pregnant women who are forced to remain in dangerous conditions.
"Most asylum seekers fleeing Central America have extremely limited means and often cannot pay for shelter, food, water, or other necessities," according to the Human Rights Watch report. "They are also at risk of serious crime, including kidnapping, sexual assault, and violence."
Known as the "Remain in Mexico" policy, the Department of Homeland Security's Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) were implemented earlier this year as a means of deterring asylum seekers from crossing the U.S. southern border. Previously, all asylum seekers were permitted to remain in the U.S. while their case made its way through the courts.
The policy remains the subject of a federal court challenge. Last week, a union representing asylum officers took the rare step of urging the court to abandon the policy, insisting it was "fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation."
According to the DHS, the administration has the authority to "return the alien to that territory pending a [removal] proceeding," even if that person is seeking asylum.
The Trump administration also has defended the policy by declaring Mexico a "safe third country." The HRW report counters that these border cities are anything but secure and argues that the policy has had "serious rights consequences for returned asylum seekers."
The report released Tuesday details the harrowing experiences of asylum seekers sent to Ciudad Juárez, one of the major border towns.
One woman from Guatemala was returned to Ciudad Juárez, where she said she was sexually assaulted by two men in front of her 4-year-old son.
"I can still feel the dirtiness of what they did in my body," she told HRW.
Another female asylee described being kidnapped with her 5-year-old daughter and having to pay a ransom to save her life after being returned to Ciudad Juárez.
On top of dire conditions, asylum seekers also face legal and financial challenges when required to remain in Mexico. Many report difficulty accessing legal representation and claim that their personal identification had been seized by Border Patrol agents.
A 21-year-old asylum seeker sent to Ciudad Juárez told HRW that he had been robbed at knifepoint and stabbed in the back, yet the Mexican police has refused to help him because he wasn't a citizen.
Additionally, the Mexican government told the HRW that there was no program currently in place to issue work visas to asylum seekers waiting in Mexico, making it difficult for many to afford adequate food and shelter while waiting months or years for their day in court.
One asylum seeker describes her return to Ciudad Juárez with her 6- and 3-year-old sons. After being rejected from a shelter and unable to find housing pending an October court date, the woman told HRW that she was considering crossing the border illegally but feared separation from her children.
"If they take my kids, it's better that they just kill me," she told HRW.
Although the Homeland Security's MPPs have not been struck down by U.S. courts, the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in California challenges the policy as a violation of international human rights law. The HRW report directly calls upon the DHS to end the protocols and ensure safe asylum for immigrants, citing U.S. obligations not to return people to places where they face grave danger.