A controversial Donald Trump-era United States policy that forced some migrants to return to Mexico and remain here to await the outcome of their asylum claims will restart on Monday after Mexico agreed to its resumption.
The Biden administration terminated the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, as the “Remain in Mexico” scheme is formally known, but a U.S. federal court ordered that it be reinstated.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a statement Thursday that re-implementation of the program will begin on or around December 6.
“Once fully operational, MPP enrollments will take place across the southwest border, and returns to Mexico will take place at seven ports of entry in San Diego, Calexico, Nogales, El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville,” it said.
“… Once the court injunction is lifted, MPP will be terminated,” the DHS said. The United States government is “vigorously contesting” the federal court ruling, it said.
The College of the Northern Border estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 migrants will be returned to Mexico once the program resumes.
Announcing Mexico’s acceptance of the resumption of the scheme, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) said the United States government had accepted the Mexican government’s humanitarian concerns about the program.
Mexico requested greater resources for migrant shelters and international organizations that attend to migrants, protection for vulnerable groups of people, consideration of local security conditions and the capacity of shelters and the National Immigration Institute (INM) to receive migrants and the implementation of anti-COVID measures, including medical checks of migrants and the provision of vaccines before their expulsion.
The SRE also said the federal government has decided for humanitarian reasons and on a temporary basis not to deport migrants who have been given a date to appear in a U.S. court to present their asylum case.
The DHS said that United States would commit to ensuring that asylum cases are resolved within six months of a migrant’s return to Mexico. Some migrants returned to Mexico during the Trump administration have been waiting for much longer for their cases to be heard.
“The U.S. government will work closely with the government of Mexico to ensure that there are safe and secure shelters available for those enrolled in MPP; that individuals returned under MPP have secure transportation to and from U.S. ports of entry; and that MPP enrollees are able to seek work permits, healthcare, and other services in Mexico.”
The program can be used to expel asylum seekers that traveled through Mexico to reach the United States. It has been widely criticized because migrants are forced to wait in dangerous border cities such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez and Matamoros.
“We’ve repeatedly and publicly criticized the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy because we believe it is inhumane and contrary to international law because it puts people in danger … and will continue to do so,” said Alberto Cabezas, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
Alejandra Macías of the organization Asylum Access México was highly critical of the reactivation of the MPP.
“[Just] when we believed that nothing worse could come, something much worse arrives; we didn’t think this program was going to be reimplemented,” she told the newspaper El Universal.
“Mexico says it is accepting [the program] for humanitarian reasons, but the only thing it’s doing is becoming an accomplice [of the United States] and that will give rise to a massive violation of human rights,” Macías said.
She said there is no guarantee that migrants returned to Mexico will be safe here. INM agents and members of the National Guard – who have been deployed to stop the flow of migrants through Mexico – have shown they are not concerned about migrants’ human rights, Macías said.
“With this situation Mexico shows that it doesn’t have a well-defined migration policy, it changes its migration policy at its convenience and places migrants in situations of vulnerability,” she said.
Duncan Wood, a Mexico expert and vice president for strategy and new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told El Universal that being forced to reimplement the “Remain in Mexico” policy is a big blow for the Biden administration given that it wanted to terminate it.
Nevertheless, it gives the U.S. government “a breather” on the southern border, he said. Large numbers of migrants have traveled through Mexico en route to the U.S. since Biden took office in January.
The U.S. government has been able to use a Trump-era public health rule, Title 42, to expel migrants in the absence of the MPP but for a variety of reasons, it has not been applied across the board, The New York Times reported.
“The resumption of the Remain in Mexico program … will add a new option for migrants who cannot be expelled under Title 42,” it said.
Wood said the U.S. government – as it indicated it would do – will have to increase cooperation with its Mexican counterpart “to guarantee that the migrants who remain in Mexico are safe and protected from health and organized crime threats.”
The United States’ commitment to vaccinate migrants before returning them to Mexico and to resolve their asylum cases within six months is “a welcome advance” for both the asylum seekers and the south-of-the-border communities who will receive them, he added.
Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, told El Universal that the Mexican government managed to make the MPP a more humane program to the extent that is possible. “But we’ll have to see how it works in practice,” he added.