TJ Mills, Managing Attorney for New York JFON, in Mexico with the UN Refugee Agency
In 2016, Mexico received 8,788 asylum applications. In 2017, that number soared above an estimated 18,000. Most of these asylum seekers were fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. But last year also saw an increase in refugees from Venezuela, Haiti, Africa and other troubled places around the world.
“This is the first time that large numbers of refugees are claiming asylum in Mexico rather than transiting through it to the United States,” says TJ Mills, managing attorney for New York Justice for Our Neighbors.
Mexico is a 2000 signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, which means authorities cannot summarily turn away those arriving at their border seeking asylum, but must instead allow them to present their claim before the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR).
These are the legalities, but then there are the practicalities. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) quickly realized that Mexico was woefully unprepared for the onslaught at their border. Besides a severely limited budget, inadequately trained staff, and a lack of attorney access for refugees, the adjudication process—deciding who is granted asylum and who is denied—was capricious and unfair.
The UNHCR turned to TJ, with his considerable asylum expertise, acquired from both his work with NY JFON and previous deployments with the UNHCR in several hot spots around the world. His mission: develop and implement a training program for staff and attorneys in six months.
“There was no template, it was totally improvised. It was the Wild West,” admits TJ. “But my JFON experience was helpful in developing the training program because so many of our asylum cases are similar to those in Mexico.”
Once the training manual and program were completed, TJ spent the rest of his deployment traveling among the various COMAR locations and UNHCR field offices throughout Mexico, including Mexico City, and, closer to the Guatemalan border, the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz.
His mission now was to train the UN staff—who were charged with supervision of Mexico’s implementation of its obligations under the Convention—and the attorneys who would be taking on asylum cases.
“Nobody had experience interviewing refugees,” he says. “They didn’t know how to present the case or which arguments would work the best. They don’t have the resources we have and they work in a much more isolated and territorial way.”
While U.S. immigration attorneys are eager to share information, explains TJ, many Mexican attorneys aren’t even willing to form a listserv. This lack of collaboration doesn’t help them present a united front when dealing with the Mexican government. The importance of the camaraderie found amongst JFON attorneys was a theme TJ would revisit again and again during his training sessions.
TJ is back home in New York now, but the training manual and other materials he developed will continue to be used in the years ahead. And that’s something to feel good about.
“I’ve never been so challenged in a job before,” TJ confesses. “But I also feel a deep sense of accomplishment.”
Would he do it again?
He pauses for a moment, as if giving the question careful consideration.
“Yes,” he answers, smiling. “I would.”