The United States will begin allowing in migrants who sought asylum under the Trump administration but were forced to sit in Mexico as they awaited a hearing before a judge, the Biden administration announced Friday.
It was the latest step by President Joe Biden to roll back some of former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies. But the announcement comes days after the White House said authorities will be turning away a vast majority of migrants seeking asylum at the border.
“As President Biden has made clear, the U.S. government is committed to rebuilding a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
But Mayorkas added that “changes will take time,” especially given the pandemic, and he cautioned that those not eligible for coming into the United States under the change should not travel to the border.
“Due to the current pandemic, restrictions at the border remain in place and will be enforced,” he said.
The reprocessing for those who were subject to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols will begin on Feb. 19. There will be three ports of entry where people with asylum cases can be reprocessed. DHS officials, who said this is phase one of tackling MPP, noted more ports of entry may be added later.
The government estimates there are around 25,000 individuals who are waiting in Mexico under the policy. Up to 300 people will likely be reprocessed daily at the three ports of entry, DHS officials said.
Although the Biden administration is not accepting most new asylum cases due to concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic, those who are going to be reprocessed from the MPP policy will be tested for COVID-19. The United States is working with Mexico, in addition to several international nonprofits, to identify those who qualify for reprocessing.
The COVID-19 tests will be issued through one of the international nonprofits and funded by the United States government, according to DHS officials.
Migrant Protection Protocols established in 2019
The Department of Homeland Security, in partnership with the Justice Department, rolled out the Migrant Protection Protocols on Jan. 29, 2019, at the San Diego-Tijuana border region. It was one in a series of measures that the Trump administration implemented to restrict asylum and crack down on unauthorized immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Biden’s first day in office, the DHS announced it would immediately stop sending asylum seekers to Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” policy as of Jan. 21. But the department emphasized that would only apply to new enrollments in the program.
Biden also recently signed an executive order to review the MPP policy.
Top officials like former acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf described the policy as a “game-changer.” An agreement with the Mexican government has allowed U.S. border officials to send back more than 70,000 migrants to Mexico under the program, according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
TRAC data showed that 27,000 asylum seekers under the program had been regularly attending their hearings before the pandemic restrictions, while 12,000 more are awaiting a first hearing.
As of April, the first full month when COVID-19 restrictions on asylum at the border began, the U.S. government sent back at least 5,493 migrants to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol statistics showed.
In December, the nonprofit group Human Rights First updated its list of documented instances of violence, kidnapping and extortion of asylum seekers sent to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols in the past two years. There are now over 1,300 entries.
Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher who helped compile the list remotely by reaching out to shelters, attorneys and migrants themselves, said the true number is much higher.
Esmeralda Siu is the executive director for the Coalicion Pro Defense del Migrante, a collective of six migrant shelters in Baja California’s border with California. She welcomed Friday’s announcement about the processing of some asylum seekers under “Remain in Mexico.”
Since the program rolled out in Tijuana, the U.S. government has returned more than 8,100 asylum seekers to there under MPP, and another 6,900 to the neighboring border city of Mexicali, across the border from Calexico, according to TRAC.
“There are people that have been here since 2019, and other people who left or remain waiting. At the shelters we have people waiting for more than a year,” Siu said.
Based on information from DHS officials, these individuals who have had the longest wait will be prioritized for processing and parole into the U.S.
Although the Biden administration has not released the locations of the three ports of entry where processing will begin next week, San Ysidro in San Diego is essentially guaranteed to be one of them. It is the largest land border crossing at the U.S.-Mexico border and is where U.S. border officials first sent migrants under MPP.
Immigration advocates are hopeful
As Siu waits for more details about how processing will work and who will be eligible to go first, she said she hoped it would be well-managed and that the U.S. government would quickly send out accurate information for MPP participants on how to proceed.
“I hope that … it is controlled and that there is no snowball effect. We have to be very precise and clear so we don’t have any collapses at the border,” she said. “Misinformation has caused a lot of conflict, and in reality some people who are irresponsible will mismanage that info and confuse migrants.”
That is a sentiment echoed by Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney based in El Paso, Texas, who has dedicated much of her time to providing legal advice, as well as accurate information to migrants she encounters, whether at the border bridges of Ciudad Juárez early last year or through WhatsApp messages and Facebook Live, post-pandemic.
“I felt like I could make much more of a difference being somebody who is trying to give honest understandable information to the migrants, because really we are fighting in a way the same marketing that is done by the coyotes and the smugglers, because people are very desperate,” Levy said.
The El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region has the largest concentration of asylum seekers returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols.
Levy called Biden’s plan to begin processing some asylum seekers under MPP a “good faith effort.” But she added that more needed to be done.
She noted that Friday’s announcement is limited only to migrants who have “active” MPP cases, numbering about 25,000 migrants. It does not apply to nearly 33,000 migrants who were not present at their hearings or had an absentia ruling against them.
“I’m very eager to see if the administration makes any other announcements in the near future regarding people who have already lost their cases in MPP, because we know that it was fundamentally an unfair process, an unjust process, created by the Trump administration to make sure that asylum seekers did not have a fair day in court,” Levy said. “They were horrific conditions with little to no access to attorneys.”
Osbaldo Estupiñan Garcia, an asylum seeker from Cuba whom the Trump administration sent to Nogales in January 2020, also welcomed the news.
During the past year in Mexico, he has built a life for himself, working temporary jobs — the only type he’s able to find with his temporary humanitarian visa. He has moved in with a girlfriend from Nogales, along with her two children. After Biden’s election, they began having conversations about what they would once it is his turn to be processed.
“The wait is not easy,” he said.
However, he and other asylum seekers under MPP in Nogales might have to wait longer than most for their chance to be processed. The Arizona border was the last stretch where the Trump administration implemented “Remain in Mexico.”
Estupiñan Garcia said he had already seen lots of misinformation in WhatsApp and Facebook groups.
“There are a lot of people on social networks speculating that the border is open, and at the end of the day it’s a lie,” he said.