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MEXICO CITY — Faced with the highest number of migrants crossing the U.S.’ southwestern border in 21 years, senior officials in the Biden administration are embracing some of former President Donald Trump’s most hard-line policies and considering whether to adopt others, including one that required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases were decided.
The controversial measures have raised alarm among immigration advocates, who accuse the administration of turning its back on asylum seekers and pushing inhumane policies in a desperate effort to stop the flow of migrants reaching the U.S. border.
President Joe Biden has maintained a Trump-era pandemic rule that allows the U.S. to summarily expel asylum seekers back to Mexico, without giving them a chance to apply for protection. He went a step further this month, when the U.S. began flying migrants apprehended at the border to southern Mexico—where they are put on buses and dumped in Guatemala—in an effort to prevent them from returning to the U.S. Many are young children.
In the biggest about-face, senior U.S. officials have privately discussed reviving the Trump-era policy Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), colloquially known as “Remain in Mexico,” in order to manage the number of migrants arriving at the border, according to three sources with knowledge of the discussions. Under the policy, the U.S. sent more than 70,000 asylum seekers from 2019-2021 to some of Mexico’s most dangerous border cities to wait while their immigration cases were decided.
Biden heavily criticized the policy as a candidate and suspended it on his first day in office. But as border apprehensions jumped, high-ranking officials in the White House floated the idea of bringing the program back, and it’s been bandied about for weeks among a small circle of government officials. Discussions have centered around whether there could be a gentler version of the policy—a notion immigration advocates decry as ludicrous.
“MPP has been discussed at a very high level in the U.S. government,” said one source with direct knowledge of the discussions.
Senior officials considered reviving MPP even before a federal judge’s decision last week ordering its immediate reimplementation, the sources said. The judge ruled that Biden failed to follow regulatory procedure in ending the program. The Biden administration has appealed the decision to the conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, arguing that reinstating the policy is impossible to execute in such a short timeframe.
But in appealing the judge’s ruling, the administration also hinted at what a “gentler” MPP might look like: the same legal framework but with reliable food and housing for migrants in the program, improved tracking and communication with them, and more access to attorneys who can help them prepare their claims.
“To re-establish a program using the Secretary’s return authority responsibly, the Department would need to address these concerns,” David Shahoulian, a top immigration official at the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a deposition to the appellate court.
A spokesman for the White House told VICE World News that it doesn’t comment on “interagency deliberations.”
“As we’ve said before, the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program was an ineffective policy that led to a humanitarian disaster at Mexico's northern border and to asylum seekers living in squalid, dangerous, and inhumane conditions,” the spokesman said. “The MPP program remains terminated as we work around-the-clock to build out of the broken system we inherited.”
“The MPP program remains terminated as we work around-the-clock to build out of the broken system we inherited.”
One of Trump’s hallmark immigration policies, MPP almost single-handedly stopped the wave of migrants arriving at the border. It also turned migrants into virtual sitting ducks for organized crime. Expelled to cartel-dominated cities to wait for their court hearings, thousands were assaulted, raped, kidnapped, and extorted, including by Mexican law enforcement officers, according to investigations by Human Rights First and other groups. Many returned home before their cases were decided. Of those that stayed, fewer than 2 percent won their cases.
The Department of Homeland Security formally terminated Remain in Mexico in June. The program had produced “mixed results,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas wrote in a memo, but it failed to relieve the enormous backlog of asylum cases and forced some migrants to abandon their cases because of the dangerous conditions they faced in Mexico.
Even so, support for a reformed version of Remain in Mexico has gained traction among Biden’s advisors as border apprehensions in July skyrocketed, surpassing 200,0000 for the first time since March 2000. That the policy is even under consideration speaks to the political pressures Biden faces as he struggles to assert control over the border. Already, Republicans have begun exploiting the surge in migrants at the border to their advantage in advance of the 2022 midterm elections.
Of the 110,000 single adult migrants taken into custody in July, most were expelled to Mexico under the emergency public health rule known as Title 42. But most families were allowed to stay. Nearly 88 percent of the 83,000 families were processed and released into the U.S. to pursue their asylum cases. Immigration agents also encountered 19,000 unaccompanied children, an all-time monthly high. They, too, are allowed to stay in the U.S.
Worryingly for Biden, the spike is happening during summer months, when migration flows have historically declined because of scorching temperatures that make the journey more perilous.
Worsening conditions in the countries of origin, combined with the “gleam of the American promise once again” as the U.S.’ economy rebounds, are driving the numbers, Mayorkas said at a press conference in South Texas last week.
Calling the situation at the border a “serious challenge,” he announced a series of new measures to deter migrants. They include deploying “additional personnel” to the U.S.’ southern border, speeding up deportation proceedings, and flying Central American migrants to southern Mexico to deter them from returning.
"It is critical that intending migrants understand clearly that they will be turned back if they enter the United States illegally and do not have a basis for relief under our laws," Mayorkas said.
Following those comments, a coalition of immigrants-rights groups sent a letter to Biden criticizing his approach and opposing any future program that resembles MPP. “Your administration continues to pursue cruel, unlawful, and ineffective deterrence-based policies that extend rather than dismantle the previous administration’s approach to migration,” more than 100 immigrants-rights groups wrote.
To be sure, Biden’s long-term vision is markedly different from Trump’s. While Trump slashed aid to Central American countries, Biden wants to fix the root causes of migration—poverty, corruption and violence.
But the two presidents share a similar short-term approach: relying on Mexico to stop the flow of migrants, said Maureen Meyer, vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“Biden is not talking about threatening Mexico with tariffs, like under the Trump administration. But the ask is similar: What can you do to stop as many migrants from reaching the U.S.–Mexico border?” Meyer said.
Mexico also stands to play a critical role in whether and how to bring back MPP, as senior U.S. officials argued in court that it can’t be done without Mexico’s cooperation.
Reviving the policy depends on Mexico issuing immigration documents to migrants, coordinating their transportation to court dates, providing more shelter, “and additional law-enforcement measures to meaningfully curb activities and presence of gangs, cartels and other criminals seeking to prey on returned migrants,” Ricardo Zuñiga, special envoy for the Northern Triangle at the State Department, wrote in his declaration to the court of appeals.
Mexico’s foreign ministry sidestepped questions on whether it had been approached about MPP, saying the government “is committed to protecting the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers, through migratory flows that are ordered, safe, and regular.”
For now, Mexico has agreed to accept flights of expelled migrants to southern Mexico. But instead of offering them a chance to apply for legal status, Mexican authorities are bussing the migrants to Guatemala and dropping them off in a remote town in the middle of the jungle.
The United Nations Refugee Agency said the flights violate international law, heighten the risk of COVID-19 transmission, and send asylum seekers “back to the very dangers they have fled.”
Mayorkas defended the flights, saying they were needed to stop migrants from repeatedly trying to cross into the U.S. “We are executing those expulsion flights in the service of public health, not only of the American public but of the migrants themselves,” he said at Thursday’s press conference.
“We are prepared to do more as the situation warrants.”