The administration of United States President Joe Biden has struck an agreement with the Mexican government to reinstate a controversial Trump-era policy that forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their US court hearings.
The Mexican foreign ministry announced on Thursday that the “Remain in Mexico” programme, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), would restart after the US accepted its “humanitarian concerns”.
That included protection of vulnerable groups, access to shelters and aid from international organisations, as well as the availability of COVID-19 vaccines for migrants, the ministry said in a statement.
The US Department of Homeland Security said the programme would restart on December 6 and that once it is again fully operational, people would be returned to Mexico via seven border crossings in the US states of California, Arizona and Texas.
Some 70,000 people, including children, were sent back to Mexico under MPP, which Biden has sought to end as part of his pledge to reverse some of his predecessor Donald Trump’s most hardline, anti-immigration policies.
Asylum seekers have been subjected to violence, kidnappings and rape in dangerous, cartel-controlled Mexican border towns, where many were forced to wait in squalid camps for months and even years for their hearings in the US.
The Trump administration created the MPP programme in 2019 as part of its effort to deter migration into the US.
Biden suspended new enrollments on his first day in office on January 20, arguing the programme was cruel and unlawful – and it was formally terminated in June. A Texas court in August ordered the US government to restart the programme, however, saying it had been ended improperly by the Biden administration.
But for weeks the policy’s reinstatement has remained subject to Mexico’s approval.
In October, Mexico’s foreign ministry said it wanted MPP cases to be concluded within 180 days, among other demands.
The Associated Press news agency, citing sources familiar with the details of the programme, reported that the US Justice Department is assigning 22 immigration judges to work on these asylum cases.
The AP also reported that people subject to MPP would be offered COVID-19 vaccinations; adults will be given the Johnson & Johnson one-dose jab, while children will be offered the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with second doses to be administered upon their return to the US for court hearings.
Immigrant rights advocates have blasted the “Remain in Mexico” policy, describing it as unlawful and one that puts vulnerable people in dangerous situations.
Human Rights First, a US-based rights group, has documented 1,544 acts of violence against asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico under MPP from the start of the programme through February of this year.
“The ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy was a humanitarian disaster when it was first implemented, and it is doomed to be so again,” the organisation’s senior director for refugee protection, Eleanor Acer, said in a statement on Thursday.
“A laundry list of improvements cannot fix an inherently inhumane, illegal, unjust, and unfixable policy,” Acer said.
The United Nations agency for refugees (UNHCR) also expressed concern over the policy’s reinstatement.
“UNHCR was never involved in implementing MPP and will not be supporting the reinstated policy,” Matthew Reynolds, UNHCR’s representative for the United States and the Caribbean, said in a statement. “We supported the US government’s work earlier this year to end the MPP program and urge the United States to continue to follow through with those efforts.”
The reinstatement of MPP will function alongside another contentious Trump-era policy known as Title 42, which allows US border agents to quickly expel asylum seekers back to Mexico, citing the coronavirus pandemic. Title 42 remains in place even as the US has reopened its border with Mexico to non-essential travellers.
If this is the case, we can expect to see MPP being used mostly for: Cubans, Venezuelans, Haitians, Brazilians, Nicaraguans, and Ecuadorians.
While Central Americans and Mexicans continue to be expelled back to Mexico or Guatemala under Title 42. https://t.co/SLiYI6bv1e
— Stephanie Leutert (@Sleutert) December 2, 2021
Mexico has agreed to accept most people expelled under Title 42 from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
In a tweet on Thursday, Stephanie Leutert, director of the Central America and Mexico Policy Initiative at The Strauss Center at The University of Texas at Austin, said that likely means people from other nations such as Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti, Brazil and Nicaragua would be subject to MPP.
Amid rising poverty, crime and political instability in Central America and other countries in the region, the number of asylum seekers arriving at the US-Mexico border has reached record highs in recent months.
During the last fiscal year, US authorities detained 1.7 million people trying to cross into the country.