Migrants seeking to enter the United States will again have to remain in Mexico while they await immigration hearings, as the Biden administration reluctantly announced plans Thursday to reinstate the Trump-era policy and agreed to Mexico’s conditions to resume it.
The resurgence of the “Stay in Mexico” policy comes even as the Biden administration maneuvers to end it in a way that survives legal scrutiny. President Joe Biden scrapped the policy, but a lawsuit from Texas and Missouri forced him to put it back into effect, subject to acceptance by Mexico.
Mexico’s foreign secretary said that in light of the US concessions, Mexico will allow returns, which are expected to begin next week, “for humanitarian reasons and for temporary stays.”
Mexico’s conditions include COVID-19 vaccinations for migrants, more protection in dangerous Mexican border cities, better access to lawyers, and faster case resolution.
About 70,000 asylum seekers have been subject to the policy, which President Donald Trump introduced in January 2019 and which Biden suspended on his first day in office.
Illegal border crossings fell sharply after Mexico, facing Trump’s threat of higher tariffs, agreed in 2019 to the rapid expansion of the policy. Asylum seekers were victims of great violence while waiting in Mexico and faced a series of legal obstacles, such as access to lawyers and information on the case.
The migrants are expected to be returned starting Monday in a border town, which has not been identified. It will eventually take place at seven locations: San Diego and Calexico in California; Nogales, Arizona; and the Texas border cities of Brownsville, Eagle Pass, El Paso and Laredo.
The Department of Homeland Security said Thursday that it was acting to comply with a court order, but that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas believes the policy “has endemic flaws, imposed unjustifiable human costs, withdrew resources and personnel from other priority efforts, and failed to address the root causes of irregular migration “.
“Deeply flawed,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday, describing the policy. “We are working to implement under the court order,” he said.
The dual announcements follow intense discussions between the United States and Mexico after United States District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, appointed by Trump in Amarillo, Texas, ordered the policy to be reinstated, subject to Mexico’s participation.
The new iteration of the policy, outlined in a briefing for reporters and a court filing on Thursday, promises important additions and changes that Mexico demanded.
All migrants subject to the policy will be vaccinated against COVID-19. Adults will receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which only requires one injection. Children who are eligible under the US guidelines will receive the Pfizer vaccine, with second injections when they come to the US for their first hearings.
The United States will attempt to complete the cases within 180 days, a response to Mexico’s concerns that they will languish. The Justice Department is assigning 22 immigration judges to work exclusively on these cases.
US authorities will ask migrants if they fear being returned to Mexico rather than relying on them to spontaneously raise concerns. If migrants express fear, they will be screened and have 24 hours to find an attorney or representative.
The Biden administration is working to ensure the safety of migrants as they travel to and from court, including within Mexico. Some migrants who returned from Eagle Pass, Laredo and Brownsville, where Mexican border cities are especially dangerous, will be moved to locations further within Mexico.
The policy will apply to migrants from countries in the Western Hemisphere, except for Mexicans, who are exempt. US officials have not said how many will be processed daily. The administration has maintained another Trump-era policy that allows it to return Central Americans to Mexico on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Migrants will have the opportunity to meet with attorneys before each hearing. The State Department is working with Mexico on locations for telephone and video access to attorneys in the US.
The changes reflect many conditions that Mexico introduced last week.
“Vulnerable” people will be exempt, including unaccompanied children, pregnant women, people with physical or mental illnesses, the elderly, indigenous people and members of the LGBTQ community.
“The Mexican government reaffirms its commitment to the rights of migrants, as well as to safe, orderly and regulated migration,” the Mexican Foreign Secretary said on Thursday in a statement confirming that the country accepted the changes and additions to the Biden administration.
Blas Nuñez-Neto, acting undersecretary of national security for border and immigration policies, said in the court file that the administration shares Mexico’s concerns.
Mexico is also seeking money from the United States for shelters and other organizations in order to substantially increase support for migrants waiting in Mexico.
Many US-based legal aid groups that have represented asylum seekers waiting in Mexico say they will no longer accept such cases, raising questions about how the United States can satisfy Mexico’s insistence on better access to a lawyer. Administration officials say they believe there are enough other attorneys who will represent asylum seekers sent back to Mexico.
Many immigration advocates say the policy is hopeless.
“The ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy was a humanitarian disaster when it was first implemented, and is doomed to be again,” said Eleanor Acer, senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First, which documented violence against applicants. asylum while they were waiting in Mexico.
The UN refugee agency renewed long-standing concerns about the safety and rights of migrants.
“The announced adjustments to the policy are not sufficient to address these fundamental concerns,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the restoration of the policy a “great victory” for the state.
“I will continue to fight to restore security and order along our southern border, ensuring that this essential program is implemented in full compliance with the court’s order,” he said.
Mark Morgan, the acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner under Trump, dismissed many changes as cosmetic and said the new policy reflects what was in place. As a staunch defender of the policy, he welcomed plans to reinstate it, but wants to see how it is implemented, saying: “The proof is in the pudding.”