President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to end former President Donald Trump’s harmful “Remain in Mexico” policy was officially broken on Monday when the program was reinstated after a federal court order. The order even expanded the policy to include all asylum-seekers from the Western hemisphere, including Haiti. Officially named the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), the program was implemented by the Department of Homeland Security under Trump and temporarily returned immigrants to Mexico during the pendency of their removal proceedings, forcing thousands to return to unsafe circumstances. The program also required that asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for their asylum cases to be heard in an already backlogged immigration court system, leaving them in the extremely dangerous situations they were trying to escape.
According to a joint report with Human Rights First, between February 2019 and February 2021, there were at least 1,544 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum-seekers and migrants forced to return to Mexico under this program. These attacks include 341 cases of children who were kidnapped or nearly kidnapped.
“We are gravely concerned about the dangers that asylum-seekers and migrants who are returned to Mexico will face because of the reinstatement of this policy,” says Kennji Kizuka, associate director of research and analysis for refugee protection at Human Rights First.
Under intense pressure by activists, Biden suspended the program in February at the start of his presidency and began readmitting some asylum-seekers who were subjected to the law under Trump, but after Texas and Missouri sued the federal government, a federal judge ordered it be reinstated in August. The order went into effect Monday, leaving asylum-seekers in Mexico in the lurch and sending shelter providers that were already at capacity scrambling to accommodate individuals and make space without proper funding. According to Julia Neusner, refugee protection attorney with Human Rights First, Mexican government personnel were setting up a staging area on Tuesday to receive the first group of migrants returned under the policy.
“The administration has chosen to implement the policy in a rushed manner,” says Kizuka. “We’re hearing from shelter providers in different cities in Mexico that they’re not ready to receive anyone because they haven’t received funding.”
According to Kizuka, the shelter providers have not even been told whether to expect migrants and asylum-seekers who are returned to come to them for shelter.
“This is really concerning because a lot of the harm that people experienced was because they were on the streets and they didn’t have a place to stay that was safe,” says Kizuka.
While the Mexican government has asked for the guarantee that asylum-seekers will receive counsel and have their claims processed within 180 days or six months, immigration judges and legal services providers are asserting that the policy has no way of being made humane, safe, or lawful. Under the Trump administration, many asylum-seekers still had to wait months and sometimes years for a final decision to be made in their case. Additionally, many face challenges to acquiring legal representation. Under the Trump administration, only 521 people were granted asylum out of the 70,000 that were placed into the first iteration of MPP. Many legal service providers say they refuse to be complicit with this inherently unfair policy, and will not take the cases anymore.
“I don’t think there’s any indication that the Biden administration can actually finish these cases in six months, there just isn’t the logistical capacity or staffing to carry that out,” says Kizuka. “This program puts people in danger and it also endangers the lives of the legal service providers’ staff. I suspect very few people will be able to find attorneys to assist them in the program.”
Since the program ultimately closes the border and ports of entry to asylum-seekers, individuals have been pushed away from ports of entry and into perilous situations. According to the U.S. Border Patrol, there were 557 Southwest border deaths in the 2021 fiscal year.
Alfredo Salazar, an organizer with Unión Migrante, a New Orleans-based nonprofit dedicated to immigration reform, remembers when he crossed the border in 1996. He calls the Biden administration’s decision to reinstate the program “a betrayal to the Latino community.”
“It is terrible, I would hear women screaming at night being raped in front of you and you can’t say or do anything because the coyote or narcotraffickers will disappear you,” says Salazar. “You’re in the middle of the forest, far away from other people because of the border patrol vigilance. They’ll kill you like an animal.”
Activists and asylum-seekers are calling on the Biden administration to continue winding down the program and create a safe pathway to asylum. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas has repeatedly stated that MPP has endemic flaws, and has failed to address the root causes of irregular migration, but claims the administration will work to grant access to asylum-seekers as quickly as possible and receive work permits, health care, and other services while they wait in Mexico.