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Trump administration to expand wait-in-Mexico measures for asylum seekers

A migrant family lines up in Tijuana this week before being transported by Mexican authorities to the San Ysidro port of entry to begin the process of applying for asylum in the United States. (Gregory Bull/AP)

An experimental U.S. policy that requires migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed will soon expand to multiple border cities and apply to migrant families, Homeland Security officials said Friday.

Since the new measures were implemented this week at the San Ysidro border crossing in southern California, about 12 Central American asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico after an initial screening, the officials said.

All of those applicants were single adults, but the new rules will extend to parents with children “very soon,” said one senior Department of Homeland Security official, who insisted on anonymity to tell reporters about the Trump administration’s plans for further implementing what it calls the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” or MPP.

El Paso is the next location being eyed by the administration to apply its wait-in-Mexico measures, DHS officials say, though it is unclear when that could happen. Officials insist they want to proceed carefully and have acknowledged privately that they expect to face legal challenges as their efforts to crack down at the border have been repeatedly blocked by federal courts.

Mexican immigration officials warned this week they would not cooperate with U.S. plans to apply the measures beyond San Ysidro nor accept the return of migrants under age 18.

But one senior DHS official said the Trump administration intends to forge ahead anyway, positive that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government will continue to take back Central Americans, including families, which now account for roughly half of those crossing the border.

“You’ll see that there’s been conflicting information coming out of Mexico,” the official said. “I think that’s a challenge, they’re trying to square off their communications internally, but it’s our understanding and it’s been our intent all along to scale up” to other ports of entry.

“We’ve had those conversations with Mexican officials, and we are confident we are going to be able to do so,” the official said.

Trump administration to start sending asylum seekers to wait in Mexico

Under the MPP guidelines, underage migrants who arrive without a parent or guardian will not be sent back to Mexico, nor will applicants who convince a U.S. asylum officer they could face harm or persecution while awaiting their hearing with a U.S. immigration judge.

Such waits can last months or years, and the Mexican government in recent weeks has offered to accommodate those placed in asylum purgatory by offering temporary residency and work permits.

Pleased by Mexico’s cooperation, the Trump administration has attempted to walk a fine line between managing the sensitivities of the leftist López Obrador government and its political need to tout the measures as a tough, innovative response to a crisis in the American asylum system as record numbers of Central American families arrive each month.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen worked out a broad agreement with senior Mexican officials during secret talks at a Houston airport hotel late last year. But since then U.S. officials and the López Obrador government have gone to great lengths to cast the measures as a unilateral move by the United States, and an invocation of emergency authority granted under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.

Deal with Mexico paves way for asylum overhaul at U.S. border

In reality, American border officials would not be able to move forward with their plans if the López Obrador government refuses to take back Central Americans after they have crossed into the United States.

DHS officials said they are not expecting that to occur.

“The encouraging thing for us is the López Obrador administration, as they came in, started signaling that they would be looking to try to keep individuals in safer conditions,” the senior DHS official said. “They’ve been looking at jobs, at humanitarian visa programs, and some of those policies have actually facilitated our ability to return someone.”

“If the Mexican government decided to no longer provide humanitarian protections under their laws and international law to people on their territory, that would be a bigger issue,” the official said. “But I think we have confidence that the administration will live up to those commitments and will do what’s right.”

“At the end of the day, we have an understanding that’s working right now, and hopefully that continues,” the official said.