MEXICO CITY — From their tent camp along the Rio Grande River, hundreds of asylum seekers waited hopefully as U.S. President Joe Biden, during his first day in office, restored protections for undocumented immigrants, proposed a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people, and rescinded his predecessor’s travel ban on citizens of predominantly Muslim countries.
But their turn didn’t arrive.
Instead, thousands of mostly Central American asylum seekers stranded in Mexican border cities for more than a year under the Trump-era policy Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, were told to “remain where they are.”
“Biden has authorized Dreamers, stopped deportations from the U.S., but he doesn’t mention us. It’s disheartening,” said Joel, one of a handful of Cuban asylum seekers living in the 1,200-person migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. Cartel members roam the camp freely despite the barbed wire-topped fence circling the perimeter and security officers guarding its entrance.
“People feel tricked. To live in these conditions for more than a year — anybody would be upset.”
What to do with MPP — which requires newly-arrived asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their immigration cases wind their way through U.S. courts — is one of the thorniest issues facing Biden as he seeks to embrace a more humanitarian approach to immigration than former U.S President Donald Trump without signaling an open-door policy.
Initiated in 2019, the program has sent more than 60,000 migrants to Mexico’s most dangerous border cities. Most gave up and returned home, but several thousand have been living in tent camps, shelters, and cheap hotels along the border for more than a year.
The Department of Homeland Security announced on January 20 that it will stop enrolling new asylum seekers in MPP, a major turning point that helps fulfill one of Biden’s key campaign promises to end the policy. It’s the beginning of the end for one of Trump’s most effective — and derided — hard-line immigration measures.
But the immediate impact of suspending MPP is limited. The program was already being rapidly fazed out in favor of other restrictive policies and emergency pandemic measures that effectively shut down the U.S. asylum system. Around 2,600 migrants have been put into MPP since October, compared to more than 12,000 in August 2019.
And for those asylum seekers already enrolled in MPP, nothing changes.
Suspending MPP is “a step,” said Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer who represents asylum seekers in the program. “But it’s an empty step if you don’t take care of the people who are stuck.”
She is pushing the Biden administration to admit asylum seekers in MPP into the U.S. to wait for their immigration hearings, and if necessary quarantine them because of COVID-19 risks. “We have fingerprinted them to death, we have taken their biometrics, we have photographed them. What more?”
While Biden has suspended MPP, it still remains on the books. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case on its legality in March. The Trump administration was poised to defend the policy, which it described as “hugely successful, including by reducing burdens on United States communities and easing the humanitarian crisis on the Southern border."
The Biden administration “has a couple of weeks to decide legally what they are going to do,” said Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher in refugee protection for Human Rights First, which has condemned the policy for sending asylum seekers into situations where they are kidnapped, attacked and sexually assaulted.
But he said even ending MPP altogether will have little impact if Biden doesn’t also end the Trump-era policy of summarily denying asylum to migrants who are labeled a public health risk. A byproduct of the pandemic, the controversial policy allowed Trump to get his ultimate goal: sealing off the U.S. southern border to vulnerable migrants.
“Without changing the public health rule, suspending MPP is not much of a change at all,” Kizuka said.
For now, those asylum seekers under MPP are veering between optimism and despair.
The Matamoros tent camp has become fertile ground for cartel activity. The city is the home-base of the powerful Gulf Cartel. Young men associated with the criminal syndicate roam the campgrounds ensuring that no one as much as bathes in the Rio Grande River without paying them first. No one — not the NGOs nor the guards charged with securing the camp — dare to stop them.
“We are practically stranded here. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us and how much longer we will have to wait,” said Luz Torres, who has been waiting since last January for a hearing in her case.
She arrived in Matamoros with her two kids — then aged nine and ten — but terrified by the conditions at the tent camp, she sent them across the border into the U.S. alone. It was the only way they would be allowed in.
“I am worried. And this isn’t just me saying this, it’s all of us who are waiting,” Torres said. “My kids need me.”