The US and Mexican governments have reached an agreement to reinstate the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy under former president Donald Trump, which forced asylum seekers entering the US to remain on the other side of the border while their claims are processed.
The move announced by administration officials follows a federal court order for President Joe Biden’s administration to reinstate the Migrant Protection Protocols programme, which under the Trump administration returned more than 60,000 asylum seekers, stranding thousands of people in potentially dangerous border areas of Mexico while their claims are pending in US courts.
US officials intend to rely on the programme for single adults seeking asylum and are expected to move their cases expeditiously, with all cases moved within 180 days, according to administration officials.
Human rights organisations have condemned the policy, pointing to hundreds of cases of killings, rape, torture, kidnapping and assualts against asylum seekers who could not enter the US within the first two years of the programme under the previous administration, according to a February 2021 report from Human Rights First.
The Biden administration intends to offer Covid-19 vaccines to asylum seekers impacted by the programme, and migrants who fear returning to Mexico will have 24 hours to consult with an attorney before an interview with US immigration agents to determine whether they will enter the programme.
Following Mexico’s agreement, the US will reopen the programme next week, with asylum seekers returning for court hearings in Brownsville, El Paso, Laredo and San Diego.
The programme was suspended at the start of Mr Biden’s presidency and then formally terminated months later.
In August, a federal judge in Texas required that the administration had unlawfully ended the programme and ordered its reinstatement. The Biden administration repeatedly appealed the ruling, ultiamtely reaching the US Supreme Court, which declined the administration’s appeal to pause the programme. The White House does intend to eventually end the policy.
Mr Biden has described the programme as “dangerous, inhumane, and goes against everything we stand for as a nation of immigrants,” and administration officials have repeatedly stated they wish to end the programme. “But we also believe in following the law,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing as there was … a ruling that required us moving forward with implementation.”
Last week, the Mexican government outlined several humanitarian concerns about restarting the programme, and called on the US to expedite claims, provide asylum seekers with medical care and access to Covid-19 vaccines, and legal aid as they go through the process.
Under the revived policy, the US will conclude all asylum cases with six months of a migrant’s return to Mexico and provide “safe and secure shelter” and other services, according to officials.
Despite assurances, human rights and immigration advocacy groups have warned that reinstating the programme – while also maintaining the Title 42 public health order first invoked under Mr Trump that bars most migrants from the US-Mexico border during the coronavirus pandemic – could have drastic impacts among vulnerable people seeking asylum.
“President Biden and his administration must stop implementing Trump policies that endanger the lives and safety of people seeking refuge in the United States,” Human Rights First senior director for refugee protection Eleanor Acer said in a statement in October, after the US Department of Homeland Security issued memos to terminate the programme.
The “Remain in Mexico” policy and “other policies that flout asylum laws and treaties are inhumane and unjust,” she said. “Every day they are in place, they deliver people seeking protection to places where they are targets of brutal attacks and kidnappings perpetrated by deadly cartels and corrupt Mexican officers.”