In November 2018, in an attempt to respond to the large number of asylum seekers making their way across the border, the Mexican government launched the assisted voluntary return program (AVR Program) for migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The program was created in conjunction with the United Nations-affiliated International Organization for Migration (IOM) and funded by the U.S. Department of State, with the goal of assisting migrants with a more orderly departure back to their home countries. 

But the assisted voluntary return program has failed to meet the United Nations refugee agency criteria for voluntary return, and has instead been used by the U.S. to build yet another barrier to asylum for those coming from the Northern Triangle countries. 

Voluntary return programs are not new or unique to Mexico. In 2010, IOM reported that 26 EU member states had voluntary return programs for immigrants. Under the Mexican program, the IOM assists returning migrants with obtaining consular documentation for repatriation, migratory registration of departure, and contacting relatives and institutions that offer services upon return. Voluntary return programs give people the opportunity to leave at their own convenience and arrange for housing, family reunification, or employment upon their return. Deportation only requires the host government to arrange travel documents for the deported migrant and does not make arrangements for reintegration into the society they are returning to. 

But despite the good intentions, most voluntary return programs do not meet the criteria for voluntariness and are instead offered as a less painful alternative to deportation. In fact, Mexico’s AVR Program has faced criticism for its lack of transparency and because the program is being used to crack down on caravans of asylum seekers fleeing danger. 

In July 2019, the Mexican government expanded the AVR program to include individuals who choose to withdraw from Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). By December 9, 2019, IOM has provided Voluntary Return Assistance to 3,486 people, 107 of whom are unaccompanied minors and 1,358 participants in MPP. 

While the Trump administration has openly worked to reduce the number of people crossing the Southwest Border, they do not publicly take credit for funding this program. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has received backlash from within his own party for caving to the demands of the U.S. to crack down on immigration. 

This program has become a backroom deal that reduces the number of Central American migrants (especially those already in MPP) without making the Mexican government conduct large scale—and expensive—deportations.  

According to UNHCR’s criteria for voluntary return programs, returning migrants need to be able to make an informed  choice. Migrants need thorough, unbiased, and detailed information about the conditions that will affect them if they return. For migrants waiting in MPP, they are often not provided information on how participating in the program could impact their ability to apply for asylum in the U.S. in the future. 

The UNHCR’s second criterion for ‘voluntariness’ is that the choice to leave must be genuine and not induced. Participants in MPP returning to their home countries can hardly be considered “voluntary” when they face rampant crime and destitution in Mexico while they wait for their claims to be heard.  

In 2019, Mexico and the U.S. signed a joint declaration stating that Mexico would take “unprecedented steps” to curb illegal migration. Since that declaration, we have seen an increased use of Mexico’s National Guard at the borders, detention of migrants, and the expanded use of the AVR Program. 

This “voluntary” program is being used as another barrier to asylum seekers coming to the U.S., and requires more transparency in how it is being used especially in regards to individuals in MPP.