Human Rights on the Southern Border Toolkit

The Human Rights Watch U.S. Program’s immigration work focuses on reforming harsh, outdated, and ineffective detention and deportation policies to ensure they take into account family unity, flight from persecution, and labor challenges that draw immigrants to the United States. 

STF’s goal is to raise awareness about the geographic reality of the 2,000 mile southern border, why people cross it, and support the work of HRW researchers by advocating to end the deadly deterrence policies that violate human rights.  

This map shows common travel pathways taken by Central American migrants on their way through Mexico to the U.S. Southern Border. GIF by UNICEF

What’s Happening Along the U.S. Southern Border?

At a time when migration around the world is at historic highs, more than 2.4 million migrants were apprehended trying to cross the US-Mexico border between October 2022 and September 2023. A year earlier, more than 2.3 million people were stopped, which was more than the 1.7 million arrests made the year before. (New York Times)

The United Nations declared the US-Mexico border as the deadliest migrant land route in the world. In the first eight months of 2023, over 500 people died while trying to travel from Mexico (New York Times).

One of the main reasons this land route is so deadly for migrants is that the US government has implemented multiple policies known as “deadly deterrence policies” meant to keep people from trying to cross the border. One of the most well-known examples is Title 42, which was a public health policy used during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, when Title 42 ended in May 2023, the Biden Administration implemented a new asylum rule (HRW).

Under the new asylum rule, many asylum seekers face expedited removals, arbitrary detention, prosecution, and a five-year ban on returning to the US unless they make an appointment at select US land border ports of entry using “CBP One” prior to crossing the border. CBP One is a difficult-to-access phone app that often fails to recognize faces with darker skin tones. This process can take several months and exposes asylum seekers to systematic targeting by cartels and Mexican government officials for kidnapping, extortion, sexual assault, and other harms (HRW).

In addition to federal efforts to keep people from crossing into the US, states like Texas are implementing their own deadly deterrence policies. Operation Lone Star (OLS) was launched by Texas Governor Greg Abbot in 2021 to “combat crime along the Texas-Mexico border and capture more immigrants trying to enter the United States”. There are currently over 10,000 soldiers along the border under Operation Lone Star. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the impact of Operation Lone Star, finding the program has led to injuries and deaths, increased racial profiling of border residents, consistently violated the rights of migrants and asylum seekers as well as US citizens, and suppressed freedom of association and expression (HRW).

In June 2023, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ramped up his already ruthless border approach by installing razor wire and buoys with circular saws in or near the Rio Grande. Under Operation Lone Star, high-speed vehicle pursuits and the accidents they cause in communities throughout south Texas are a threat to public safety, with harmful consequences for migrant passengers and Texas residents alike. Human Rights Watch found that at least 74 people have been killed and 189 injured since the policy began in March 2021 (HRW).

Deadly deterrence policies that criminalize migrants and block asylum seekers are ineffective and lead to more loss of life. Such policies do not stop people from migrating and rather compel them to cross more remote, dangerous areas of the border. Human Rights Watch and the Student Task Force are calling on the Biden administration to respect the right to seek asylum, create safe pathways for migration, and work to create a humane, rights-respecting border that puts human rights over politics.

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Important Vocabulary

Asylum Seeker

Someone who is seeking international protection from dangers in their home country but whose claim for refugee status hasn’t been determined legally. They must apply for protection in the country of destination, meaning they must arrive at or cross a border in order to apply (IRC).

Migrant

Someone who is moving from place to place (within their country or across borders), usually for economic reasons such as seasonal work. They are not forced to leave their native countries because of persecution or violence, but rather are seeking better opportunities (IRC).

Refugee

Someone who has been forced to flee their home because of war, violence, or persecution, often without warning. They are unable to return home unless and until conditions in their native lands are safe for them again. Refugees granted asylum are given protection under international laws and conventions (IRC).

Deadly Deterrence

Known as the “prevention through deterrence” approach, these policies limit the entry of asylum seekers and migrants at ports of entry and denies them access to the asylum system to keep people from illegally crossing the border. Instead of deterring them, this approach forces border-crossers to attempt entering at more remote, dangerous areas along the U.S.-Mexico border (HRW).

Watch this video to learn how the asylum seeking process works in the United States. (Click to watch, 1:40)

Asylum Travel Ban

On January 5, 2023, the Biden Administration announced a new regulation that has been called an “asylum transit ban” (a deadly deterrence policy). The regulation allows entry to 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela provided they have a sponsor already in the U.S.

The policy also states that those who attempt to cross the U.S. border without first applying for asylum in a country of transit along their journey will be considered ineligible for asylum in the U.S. (Washington Post).

Title 42

Title 42 (a deadly deterrence policy) is a public health law that allows the government to stop anyone from entering the border in order to keep disease from spreading in the U.S. Since March 2020, Title 42 has been used to expel asylum seekers who tried to enter the U.S. due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government has argued that Title 42 supersedes U.S. asylum law, which allows migrants entering U.S. soil to seek protection. Anyone processed under Title 42 is not allowed to apply for asylum (CBS News).

Title 8

A decades-old immigration legislation that outlines the processes for handling migrants at the border and enforcing immigration authority.

Under Title 8, border officials can bar migrants who attempt to enter unlawfully from reentry for five or ten year and/or apply for expedited removal process. These penalties were in effect under Title 42 (ABC).


Operation Lone Star

A deadly deterrence program launched by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in March 2021, to “combat crime along the Texas-Mexico border and capture more immigrants trying to enter the United States”. Abbot renewed his declared a state of emergency in most Texas counties along the border in May 2023 (ABC).

HRW has documented the impact of Operation Lone Star including violations of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, racial profiling, injuries, and deaths (HRW).

Want to learn more vocabulary? Check out our U.S. Immigration Glossary.

Advocacy Opportunities: How Can You Make a Difference?

Petition Congress

Join HRW immigration experts and other STFers by getting signatures to fight deadly deterrence policies. Petitions will be hand-delivered to U.S. Congressional Representatives in the coming months.

U.S. Southern Border Exhibit

Host a U.S. Southern Border Exhibit on your campus, giving students a real-life simulation experience of what it’s like to reach and cross the border into the United States as an asylum seeker. (Click to watch a tour of the exhibit, 4:18)

Guest Speaker

Invite a guest speaker in person or virtually to engage your school community in the campaign. Contact the STF Team to learn more about this opportunity.

Film Screening

Screen “The Real Death Valley”, a documentary that showcases the little-known story of hundreds of migrants who have died in the sweltering Texas brush while trying to evade a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. Film resources available here.

Educator’s Portal–Lesson Plans

For educators interested in teaching students about migration and asylum seekers along the U.S. southern border, please explore the resources below.

Seeking Asylum in the United States

Students will be able to identify asylum as a path to lawful status in the United States and explain the main criteria for receiving asylum. Students will also evaluate the asylum application process.

Subjects: English Language Arts, Social Sciences

Grades: 9-12

History of U.S. Immigration Policy

This collection of eight lessons from Brown University’s Choices Program gives students historical perspective on American immigration policy to help frame the current situation and challenges.

Subjects: English Language Arts, Social Sciences

Grades: 9-12

Why People Leave the Northern Triangle

This lesson plan uses a video and resources from KQED news to teach students the driving factors of migration from countries in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador).

Subjects: English Language Arts, Social Sciences

Grades: 9-12

Immigration Stories Project Unit Plans

The Immigrant Stories Project contains three units with multiple lessons that teach students aspects of US immigration, past and present, through the personal experiences of immigrants.

Subjects: English Language Arts, Social Studies

Grades: 8-12

Contact the STF Team if you would like additional educational resources.

Photo credits: UNICEF (top image), Federico Rios (gallery image left), Adriana Zehbrauskas (gallery image center), John Moore/Getty Images (gallery image right), Rich Schmitt (guest speaker), Pam Bruns (US southern border exhibit), Official Documentary Poster (Missing in Brooks County) Paul Ratje (seeking asylum lesson plan), Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress (history of immigration lesson plan), iStock (northern triangle lesson plan), iStock (immigration stories lesson plan)

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