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The Human Rights Watch U.S. Program’s immigration work focuses on reforming harsh, outdated, and ineffective detention and deportation policies to ensure they take into account family unity, flight from persecution, and labor challenges that draw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

In 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) stopped over 2.7 million migrants from entering the United States, many from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela (NBC News). Nearly 130,000 migrant children entered the U.S. government’s shelter system in fiscal year 2022, an all-time high (CBS News). Tragically, 2022 also saw the highest number of migrants deaths, with at least 853 migrants dead while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border (CBS News). Most deaths are caused by extreme heat, dehydration, or drowning (NPR).

In the last 10 years, the majority of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border came from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras), due to gang violence, political/economic instability and climate change. However, when Covid-19 hit, the Trump administration initiated Title 42, a public health exception, to expel anyone seeking asylum from these countries if they attempted to enter the U.S. Title 42 did not apply to migrants coming from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Venezuela which is why there was an influx in asylum seekers from those countries in recent months (CBS News).

In December 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court unexpectedly upheld Title 42, allowing the government to continue to expel asylum seekers without a hearing, when 18 states sued to keep the policy in place. On January 5, 2023, the Biden Administration instituted a new policy that added additional restrictions to asylum seekers and migrants along the southern border, particularly targeting people from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Venezuela (White House).

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. The Biden administration should 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 (HRW).

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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).


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).


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).

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

Deadly Deterrence Policies

Known as the “prevention through deterrence” approach to immigration, these policies limit the entry of asylum seekers and migrants at ports of entry and denies them access to the asylum system in an attempt to keep people from illegally crossing the border.

Instead of deterring people from coming, this approach forces border-crossers to attempt entering at more remote, dangerous areas along the U.S.-Mexico border where thousands have died on the journey (HRW).

Asylum Transit 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).

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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