The Biden administration has reached a deal with the Mexican government to restart the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program that requires asylum seekers to wait outside U.S. territory while their claims are processed, U.S. and Mexican officials said Thursday.
“Mexico has demanded a number of humanitarian improvements as conditions of agreeing to accept enrollees,” said one U.S. official, including guarantees that asylum seekers will have access to legal counsel and that their humanitarian claims will be processed within six months.
“These are improvements we agree with,” said the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the Department of Homeland Security.
Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it would allow asylum seekers processed under the MPP to remain on Mexican soil “for humanitarian reasons and on a temporary basis.”
The return of the MPP is awkward for the Biden administration, which is still formally preparing to end the program even as it brings it back under court order.
“Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas has repeatedly stated that MPP has endemic flaws, imposed unjustifiable human costs, pulled resources and personnel away from other priority efforts, and failed to address the root causes of irregular migration,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.
The Trump administration used the MPP program to return more than 60,000 asylum seekers across the border to Mexico, where they were often preyed upon by criminal gangs, extortionists and kidnappers. President Biden denounced the MPP as inhumane and quickly ended it after taking office, but Republican officials in Texas and Missouri sued the administration.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee, ordered the Biden administration in August to restart the MPP, faulting the White House for ending it without fully considering the consequences, while acknowledging it could return only with Mexico’s consent.
The Biden administration appealed, but the Supreme Court upheld the decision, leaving U.S. officials to hammer out an agreement with Mexico.
Under terms of the new accord, the Biden administration will offer coronavirus vaccine doses to asylum seekers placed in the MPP program, U.S. officials said. Adults will be offered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and eligible minors will be able to receive the two-dose Pfizer regimen.
The shots would not be mandatory, and they will be provided to migrants in U.S. Border Patrol stations by an independent contractor, the officials said.
U.S. officials also told the court Mexico will ensure MPP enrollees are provided temporary legal status and work permits, and will have access to shelters and safe transportation to and from the border to attend their court hearings.
The Justice Department has assigned 22 immigration judges to oversee the MPP restart and ensure claims are processed rapidly to comply with the 180-day timeline, officials said. Biden officials said they have added other safeguards to the MPP to exempt the most vulnerable migrants and query asylum seekers to find out if there’s a possibility they could face persecution or torture in Mexico.
Officials in the United States are planning to initially use the MPP program primarily for single adult migrants, who account for the majority of illegal border crossings, according to one official. Mexico is willing to accept asylum seekers from Spanish-speaking countries, as with the previous version of the program, but migrants from “all Western Hemisphere nations” will be eligible for return, one administration official said.
The Biden administration will continue to use the Title 42 public health law — which allows U.S. authorities to rapidly “expel” most border crossers — as its primary border management tool. In recent weeks, the administration has increased the percentage of migrants returned to Mexico or sent home on “expulsion flights” under Title 42, which generally does not afford asylum seekers a chance to apply for U.S. humanitarian protections.
U.S. officials said the restart of the MPP would probably begin with a small number of returnees and ramp up, but the two countries were still ironing out other operational details. Temporary “tent courts” in the Texas cities of Brownsville and Laredo have been under construction but may not be fully ready to begin holding hearings next week, one official said.
The officials did not identify the border city where the MPP will recommence Monday, but it will soon expand to Brownsville, Laredo, Eagle Pass and El Paso in Texas; Nogales, Ariz.; and Calexico and San Diego in California. Court hearings will be held in Brownsville, Laredo, El Paso and San Diego, the administration said.
When the program was first implemented under the Trump administration, Mexico did little to assist or protect the tens of thousands of migrants who waited for their asylum claims to be processed. Many of them lived in tent camps, shelters or rented apartments in some of the country’s most dangerous cities.
Human Rights First, a New York-based nonprofit organization, recorded at least 1,544 “violent attacks” against migrants returned to Mexico under the program.
On Thursday, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, condemned the decision to implement the policy.
“UNHCR has from the start expressed its serious concerns about the MPP and its impact on asylum seekers’ safety and their due process rights. The announced adjustments to the policy are not sufficient to address these fundamental concerns,” Matthew Reynolds, UNHCR representative for the United States and the Caribbean, said in a statement.
UNHCR said it would not participate in the implementation of the MPP. But the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is also part of the United Nations, said it will provide assistance.
“IOM believes its intervention can make a difference with regards to the protection of those people affected by the MPP Program, in areas such as child protection, risk mitigation, response to and prevention of gender-based violence, counter-trafficking, alternatives to detention, mental health and psychosocial support,” said Alberto Cabezas, an IOM spokesman in Mexico.
Cabezas added that IOM “urges the authorities in the U.S. to terminate it as soon as possible and definitively.”
It appears that one U.S. concession that swayed Mexico was Wednesday’s announcement of a joint U.S.-Mexico development program in Central America, called Sembrando Oportunidades, or Planting Opportunities, a variation on a pitch that Mexico’s president had been making — unsuccessfully — to Washington for years. The program, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, aims to address the root causes of migration through increasing employment opportunities and promoting good governance. Such efforts have shown little evidence of deterring migration in the short term.
Thousands of migrants expelled from the United States under Title 42 are already waiting in northern Mexico, many in precarious conditions. In Tijuana, a sprawling tent camp has emerged along the world’s busiest border crossing. In Reynosa, more than 1,000 migrants are housed at a church-run shelter that often struggles to supply enough food. Most of the families there live in camping tents.
Mexico’s asylum system is also coping with a surge of applications. By the end of November, the country’s refugee agency had registered 123,187 applicants for refugee status, 75 percent more than in 2019, the previous historical high, according to Andres Ramírez Silva, head of the agency.
During the 2021 fiscal year that ended in September, U.S. authorities took more than 1.7 million migrants into custody along the Mexico border, an all-time high.
Sieff reported from Mexico City.