By Lizbeth Diaz, Julia Love and Kristina Cooke
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – By the time the first hearing in Yesenia’s case for asylum in the United States arrived last month, she was 1,300 miles from the courthouse.
The 28-year-old Honduran woman and her family were stranded in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, where they were taken in a Mexican government busing program under what they say were false pretenses.
Yesenia, who asked for her full name not to be published over safety fears, applied for U.S. asylum last year but was sent back across the border to wait for her case to advance under the Trump administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” program, formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols.
Terrified in one of the world’s most dangerous cities, Nuevo Laredo, she said that she and her family took the government offer of a bus out of town after seeing other families kidnapped. They hoped to get off a few hours’ south, she said. But the driver refused to let them off at a city enroute and the family eventually ended up three days’ drive away from the border.
More than 9,000 migrants have been taken to Chiapas from the border cities of Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo under the busing program, Mexican government documents seen by Reuters show.
Many migrants board the buses desperate to leave Mexico’s northern border, where they risk falling prey to gangs that target and kidnap migrants. But once in Chiapas, some have been unable to reach the United States for their hearings, advocates consulted by Reuters said.
The busing program started last summer and was ongoing at the time of publication. It is one of a series of policies, including a major deployment of Mexican National Guard on border duties, adopted by Mexico to reduce the number of migrants – mostly Central Americans – reaching the U.S. border.
U.S. President Donald Trump says these policies, along with his administration’s own clampdown on asylum, are behind a sharp drop in border apprehensions in recent months. Border security is a major plank of his 2020 re-election campaign.
Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
INM has said that the busing is for migrants’ wellbeing and is intended to help them return to their countries voluntarily. Migrants who Reuters spoke to said that many of those bused to Chiapas abandoned their U.S. asylum claims and headed home.
Chiapas human rights group Fray Matias de Cordova has documented at least 50 cases of people who wanted to pursue their asylum claims but were detained by Mexican officials while trying to head north again to attend their hearings.
Some made their court appearances. Others did not, said Enrique Vidal, a coordinator for the group. Like Yesenia, many say they were never informed they would be taken so far away, he added.
“They run the risk of losing access to the asylum system,” Vidal said.
A spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said many of the migrants it interviewed who had taken the buses to Chiapas “lacked information about their situation.”
The busing program does not interview participants to make sure they understand the decision they are making, according to two migrants who participated and an advocate.
Mexican authorities have detained some of the migrants who were bused to Chiapas because paperwork they were given by immigration officials at the northern border upon their return to Mexico was not recognized by officials in the south, or had expired, Vidal said, an account echoed by migrants.
Yesenia said she and her husband asked Mexican immigration officials repeatedly where the bus was headed but were only told it would take them away from Nuevo Laredo.
They did not realize they were bound for Chiapas until they asked the driver to make a stop in the northern city of Monterrey. The driver refused, telling them the trip was “practically a deportation.”
Last month, they tried to travel north for their hearing in Laredo, Texas, but were forced off the bus after Mexican officials saw their paperwork had expired.
Yesenia’s lawyer managed to reschedule her family’s hearing to April, buying them more time to renew their paperwork.
Yesenia says that if she had known where the bus was headed, she would have sought shelter in Nuevo Laredo.
“We feel deceived, disappointed,” she said.
(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz, Julia Love and Kristina Cooke, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)