Biden begins to unravel Trump's 'remain in Mexico' program by allowing in some asylum seekers
The United States will begin rolling back one of former President Donald Trump's most restrictive immigration policies on Friday, allowing in the first of thousands of asylum seekers who have been forced to wait in Mexico for their cases to be heard.Reuters | Updated: 19-02-2021 22:13 IST | Created: 19-02-2021 22:13 IST
The United States will begin rolling back one of former President Donald Trump's most restrictive immigration policies on Friday, allowing in the first of thousands of asylum seekers who have been forced to wait in Mexico for their cases to be heard. President Joe Biden pledged during his campaign that he would immediately rescind the Trump policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) under which more than 65,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers were denied entry and sent back across the border pending court hearings. Most returned home but some stayed in Mexico in sometimes squalid or dangerous conditions, vulnerable to kidnapping and other violence.
Now they will be allowed into the United States to wait for their applications to be heard in immigration courts. The effort will start slowly, with only limited numbers of people being admitted on Friday at the port of entry in San Ysidro, California. It will expand to two additional ports of entry in Texas, including one near a migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, in the coming week, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokeswoman.
Perla Vargas, a Nicaraguan asylum seeker in the Matamoros camp, was among the first to set up a tent near the banks of the Rio Grande River in the summer of 2019, after she was returned to Mexico with her daughter and her two grandchildren to wait for their U.S. court cases to be resolved. On Thursday, Vargas handed over the keys to a makeshift school that she helped found, in advance of what she hoped was her imminent departure.
"The children ask me, 'Is the school going to miss me?'" Vargas said. Honduran asylum seeker Antonia Maldonado served hot chocolate from a steaming pot on a stove made from the inside of a washing machine to other asylum seekers in Matamoros shivering in the near freezing weather.
She has been taking goodbye photographs and making plans to leave with her partner, a fellow asylum seeker she met on the journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. "Our biggest desire, if God allows, is to get married" in the United States, she said.
Biden began overturning Trump's hardline immigration policies on Jan. 20, his first day in office, when he lifted a travel ban on 13 mostly Muslim-majority and African countries, halted construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and reversed other measures. Democrats on Thursday formally introduced Biden's sweeping immigration bill in Congress, a measure that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
The Biden administration is treading carefully in its efforts to process asylum seekers, wary that the policy shift could encourage more migrants to trek to the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. officials say anyone who seeks to enter and is not a member of the MPP program will be immediately expelled. The administration estimates that only 25,000 people out of the more than 65,000 enrolled in MPP still have active immigration court cases and is set to begin dealing with that group on Friday. But it has cautioned that the efforts will take time.
Biden officials say they expect eventually to process 300 people per day at two of the ports. DHS and international partners planned to launch a website on Friday that would allow migrants with active cases to register to be processed at the U.S.-Mexico border, but the website did not appear to be functional as of the morning.
A group of Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Biden on Feb. 10 that said allowing MPP migrants to enter the United States "sends the signal that our borders are open." The United States, Mexico and international organizations have scrambled in recent days to figure out how to register migrants online and by phone, transport them to the border, test them for COVID-19 and get them to their destinations in the United States, people familiar with the effort said.
The fast-moving process and lack of information from U.S. officials has frustrated some advocates eager to assist the effort. The situation has taken on urgency as a winter storm has brought frigid temperatures to much of the southern United States and northern Mexico.
Migrants in the sprawling Matamoros encampment have reported children and families struggling to stay warm in makeshift tents lacking insulation or other protection from the cold. The camp has grown in recent weeks as migrants anticipate the end of the MPP program, informally known as "remain in Mexico." However, DHS has said that processing will not begin there until Feb. 22. Those seeking asylum may not have their cases resolved for years due to COVID-related immigration court closures and existing backlogs, according to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council which provides legal services to immigrants.
The delay would give the Biden administration time to reverse some Trump policies that sought to make it harder to obtain asylum, he said. In the meantime, migrants will be released to the United States and enrolled in so-called "alternatives to detention" while awaiting their hearings, a U.S. official said last week. Such programs can include check-ins with immigration authorities as well ankle bracelet monitoring.
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