‘Remain in Mexico’ migrant policy resumes, even as feds vow to end it

Customs and Border Protection officials process a small group of asylum-seekers in February, when the Biden administration was starting to phase out the Migrant Protection Protocols that forced migrants to wait in Mexico for a hearing. The “remain in Mexico” policy is resuming, under court order, even as administration officials vow to continue fighting to end it. (Photo by Glenn Fawcett/Customs and Border Protection)

WASHINGTON – The Trump-era “remain in Mexico” policy will resume Monday, after the Mexican government agreed to accept migrants who are turned away at the border and forced to wait in Mexico for their hearing.

The court-ordered renewal of the Migrant Protection Protocols comes even though the Department of Homeland Security said this summer it was ending what it called a flawed and unfair program. And DHS vowed Friday to continue working to end the program that it is now being forced to reinstate.

The announcement that the program would be renewed came late Thursday, after the Mexican government said it would accept migrants, but demanded safeguards including access to legal services, swift hearings and protections for migrants’ safety and security.

Those assurances did little to comfort opponents of the policy, who urged the Biden administration to terminate the “inhumane and illegal” program as soon as possible. Chelsea Sachau of the Florence Project’s Border Action Team called Friday’s announcement “heartbreaking.”

“We know that despite whatever promises the government’s made to make it, you know, better and faster, the reality is that they can’t make a program that was designed to be inhumane and prevent people from coming to the U.S. and seeking asylum, you can’t make that humane,” Sachau said.

“We’ve seen what people who have been stuck in Mexico have gone through, and so it’s a pretty sad time to realize that the administration has us back here,” she said.

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But border-security hardliners said MPP should never have been stopped in the first place, and they welcomed its return.

“It had significantly reduced the number of people who were trying to use the asylum system to get into the United States,” said Ira Mehlman, media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The Trump administration policy, instituted in January 2019, forced asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while they awaited their U.S. immigration court hearings. That was followed in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic took off, by stricter enforcement of Title 42, a part of the law that allows immigrants to be turned away over public health concerns.

Both policies were quickly assailed by advocates and human rights activists who said the policies are a “complete betrayal” of the American values of welcoming migrants, and that they left asylum seekers vulnerable to crime and disease in unsanitary border camps.

An October report by Human Rights First said there have been at least 7,647 kidnappings and other attacks on individuals who were turned back under Title 42, and more than 1,500 on those migrants enrolled in MPP.

But Mehlman said the policy “had significantly reduced the number of people who were trying to use the asylum system to get into the United States.”

“It is clear that people have been using this because they believe that once they make the asylum claim, they will be released into the United States,” Mehlman said.

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Despite the criticisms, the Biden administration has kept Title 42 in place. But the administration moved quickly to do away with the “remain in Mexico” policy, which DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has called flawed and inhumane.

On June 1, Mayorkas ordered the program ended. But Texas and Missouri sued to block that move and a federal district judge agreed, saying Mayorkas’ decision did not follow proper procedures and ordering the department to reinstate the program in “good faith” while the case proceeded.

DHS appealed, but grudgingly agreed to work with Mexico to reinstate the policy. In the meantime, Mayorkas said he had given the program the proper review and that he came to the same conclusion – it needs to be ended as soon as the court order is lifted.

“MPP had endemic flaws, imposed unjustifiable human costs, pulled resources and personnel away from other priority efforts, and did not address the root causes of irregular migration,” Mayorkas said in a late-October memorandum.

“MPP not only undercuts the Administration’s ability to implement critically needed and foundational changes to the immigration system, it fails to provide the fair process and humanitarian protections that individuals deserve under the law,” the memo said.

That stance was unchanged by Mexico’s agreement Thursday to begin accepting migrants again, with a number of conditions. They included demands that the U.S. provide immigration hearings in a timely manner, that immigrants get sufficient notice on the time and place of hearings, that they have access to shelter and safe transportation and that families not be separated, among other conditions.

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Despite the administration’s vow to end MPP – eventually – one advocate said he is “extremely disappointed” the program will be reinstated.

“Some Democratic candidates, when they were running, deemed these programs as inhumane and anti-immigrant,” said Jose Patiño, director of education and external affairs for Aliento AZ. “And the fact that this administration continues to implement them tells you what their priorities are.”

He accused government officials like Mayorkas of speaking “de dientes para fuera,” a Spanish saying that refers to a person’s insincerity.

“At first … I would give him the benefit of the doubt but now, I don’t believe him,” said Patiño, adding that he is “done with their talking points” of the Biden administration, which he called a “complete betrayal to the immigrant community.”

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, called on the Biden administration to terminate the “inhumane and illegal” program as quickly as possible.

“It’s heartbreaking to continue to see the thousands of families and children subjected to violent crime and horrible conditions as they await for their date in court,” Grijalva said. “Migrants deserve to be treated with dignity, respect and due process.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Diannie Chavez is a visual journalist completing her bachelor’s degree in journalism. Chavez, who interned at Phoenix Magazine, is a visual reporter for the D.C. News Bureau.

Kimberly Silverio-Bautista keem-ber-lee seel-veh-ree-oh baw-tee-s-tah (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Kimberly Silverio-Bautista expects to graduate in December 2021 with a master’s degree in mass media and communication. She is working as a broadcast reporter in the D.C. Bureau.