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Opinion ‘Remain in Mexico’ may be returning, but Biden must not repeat history

A member of the Border Patrol's Search, Trauma and Rescue Unit watches as a Central American migrant is detained by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent after crossing into the United States from Mexico, in Dona Ana County, New Mexico, on July 15. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Under President Donald Trump, the United States, for decades the world’s leading intake nation for refugees, instead got into the business of creating squalid refugee camps. That was the direct effect of his administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which strong-armed our southern neighbors into congregating tens of thousands of migrants from Central America and elsewhere in camps along the border while they awaited processing of their asylum claims in the United States.

Now the courts are forcing the Biden administration, which tried to end the Remain in Mexico policy, to resurrect it. That may happen in some limited form over the next month or so. If it does, and if migrants are again compelled to pitch tents at the border for months at a time as their asylum applications are assessed, U.S. officials will face a test: Will they again allow camps to become teeming, dangerous tent cities?

To assert that they should not is only to say that basic American ideals and values should be honored. The thousands of migrants forced into a holding pattern by the Trump administration’s policy were easy prey for Mexican criminals and crime cartels, which victimized them with assaults, robbery and kidnapping-for-ransom schemes. More than 1,000 migrants, desperate to assert their asylum claims and build lives in the United States, were seized by armed gangs and held hostage until their friends or families could gain their release by paying off the kidnappers.

The festering camps became a humanitarian crisis at our own doorstep — hotbeds for disease amid appalling sanitary conditions. Migrants often faced nightmarish logistical obstacles to hiring or staying in contact with lawyers. With a touch of Orwellian Newspeak, the policy was officially dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols; in fact, it provided migrants with no protection at all.

The pandemic provided Mr. Trump with a pretext for shutting down the asylum process altogether under an emergency health order known as Title 42. The Biden administration has retained that order, but with far more lenient enforcement. For instance, thousands of migrants who arrive as families, as well as unaccompanied minors, have been admitted to the country to pursue asylum claims.

The policy’s future is in doubt. The Biden administration remains committed to ending Remain in Mexico, and continues to pursue that goal in court. Without Mexico’s cooperation, it’s a dead letter, and it’s hard to imagine the administration pushing Mexican officials very hard to reestablish a program that neither side much liked to begin with. Administration officials say their goal, if the policy does get a second act, would be to cap processing time at six months for asylum seekers, and use makeshift courts at border crossings in southern Texas to facilitate hearings.

If camps holding asylum seekers in limbo again appear along the border, unlikely as that may seem, it will be President Biden’s responsibility to ensure that the United States, in coordination with Mexico, does not again allow them to become cesspools of suffering.