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The Ambiguous End of “Remain in Mexico”

Asylum-seekers have more questions than answers after the Biden administration rolled back a policy that trapped thousands of people in border camps.

A woman and her husband prepare a fire to cook dinner at Chamizal Park near Bridge of the Americas

In a much-anticipated move, the Biden administration on Friday announced it would start allowing some asylum-seekers, forced to stay in Mexico under a 2019 Trump-era policy, to come to the United States while their cases are processed. Immigrant justice advocates and asylum-seekers have long fought to abolish the “remain in Mexico” program, a movement that effectively forced Biden to address the policy as one of his campaign promises.

Biden suspended new enrollments to the program on his first day in office. Now, as his government has unveiled plans to start phasing out the highly-contested Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPPs, questions remain on what the future holds for the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who were forced to stay in Mexico while their cases were resolved in U.S. courts, and what this means for other asylum-seekers who continue to make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. While we can try to be optimistic and argue that this is a good start, the Biden administration’s newly released efforts don’t fully reflect the much-needed urgency to repair the U.S. asylum system and stop the criminalization of people seeking refuge. It’s a reminder that unwinding four years of the Trump administration, and decades of punitive and bipartisan border policy, requires more than just a few policy reversals.

In fact, many of the changes being made are modest: Only asylum-seekers with pending active MPP cases would be eligible to enter the U.S. under the first phase of this new plan. Currently, about 25,000 asylum-seekers have active MPP cases. Altogether, some 70,000 asylum-seekers were enrolled in MPP from the policy’s inception in January 2019. Asylum-seekers will have to register online, and those who qualify for phase one will have to wait for further instructions on the process. As BuzzFeed first reported, Customs and Border Protection agents would assess “the capacity to intake those allowed into the U.S.,” with the possibility of processing up to 300 asylum-seekers a day within the first few weeks.

This signals a change but also a continuation: In this case, border agents could retain discretion on how many people are processed on any given day. They’ve abused this discretion in the past: For years, border agents have used a process called “metering,” where asylum-seekers were turned away and placed on a waiting list before they could even start their claim at a port of entry. Immigrant justice groups have argued this practice is illegal. And many asylum-seekers will remain in the border camps, forced to continue to wait in Mexico if they test positive with Covid-19. Already, the Biden administration has vowed to continue to enforce Title 42, a public health rule that’s allowed U.S. officials to deport and deny entry to asylum-seekers arriving in the U.S.-Mexico border during the pandemic. Earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reinforced that “the vast majority of people will be turned away.”

Then there are those whose MPP cases were dismissed or denied for multiple reasons, and who wouldn’t qualify in this first phase. Lindsay Toczylowski, lawyer and executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, called this a “major flaw.” “We saw [people] turned away at [ports of entry] when they tried to come to court. We saw parents forced to decide whether to leave their babies alone in Mexico or risk [deportation] orders,” she wrote on Twitter. “We saw routine and systematic denial of access to counsel for two years. These are not legitimate removal orders. MPP was never intended to adjudicate asylum claims. By design, it kept [people] in danger to coerce them to give up.”

The process is likely to move slowly, fueling a sense of desperation for the asylum-seekers who’ve already waited for months and, in some cases, up to two years. The advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras recently shared a video testimony of a Honduran asylum-seeker identified as Laura, who’s been stuck in Tijuana for two years with her son under MPP. Then there’s the story of Pedro, a Honduran asylum-seeker who fled his home country after his brother was killed and he began to receive death threats himself. “I constantly feel unsafe and in danger,” he said in video testimony. “We want our day in court for our asylum process, but we want to be free. The MPP program is not safe for us. We are human beings, just like you.”

Stories of kidnappings, death threats, and other life-threatening dangers have been persistent among asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico, forced to relive the trauma and violence they hoped to escape. A report by Human Rights First documented over 1,300 publicly reported cases of murder, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum-seekers waiting in Mexican border cities. Just last month, 19 people, most of them migrants from Guatemala, were shot to death and burned, allegedly by Mexican police in the northern state of Tamaulipas. For years, Mexico has been the border wall for asylum-seekers from Central America, Africa, the Caribbean, and other regions, encouraged by the U.S. government, which has extended its border enforcement tactics far beyond the U.S.-Mexico border. Asylum-seekers from these regions are fleeing extreme poverty, political turmoil, death threats, natural disasters caused by the climate crisis, and other circumstances that have been largely fueled by American and foreign intervention.

Then there’s the question of what happens to asylum-seekers once they’re on U.S. soil. While they allegedly won’t be sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails but to shelters, asylum-seekers could still be required to check in with ICE agents or wear expensive monitoring ankle bracelets—a so-called “alternative to detention” practice that will still generate grand profit for private corporations and violate the privacy of asylum-seekers. As benign as Biden’s recent efforts initially appear to be, the bottom line is that the criminalization of asylum-seekers continues to be a lingering dark cloud and to reflect much of the same old patterns we’ve witnessed under both Republican and Democratic presidents. This isn’t just about ending the remain in Mexico program, it’s about ensuring a safe, fast, and humane passage for all asylum-seekers.