Biden administration suspends “remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers

A group of migrants walk across Internation Bridge Two into Mexico from the United States. The group requested asylum in the United States, but were returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protections Protocol to await their court proceedings. July 23, 2019. (Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

Asylum seekers who attempt to enter the United States will no longer be part of a controversial policy enacted under former President Donald Trump that has forced tens of thousands to wait in Mexico for American court hearings, the Department of Homeland Security announced late Wednesday.

The latest on the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as "remain in Mexico," comes on President Joe Biden’s first day in office where he earlier signed multiple executive orders rolling back additional Trump-era immigration policies.

The announcement says that beginning Thursday “the Department will cease adding individuals into the program,” but adds that border restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic are still in place. Those restrictions have allowed for the immediate expulsion of most unauthorized crossers back to Mexico. DHS said in its statement that more information about people in MPP will be forthcoming and asks the asylum seekers to stay in Mexico for now.

“All current MPP participants should remain where they are, pending further official information from U.S. government officials,” it reads.

Eleanor Acer, the director of Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection program, applauded the move but said the Biden administration needed to quickly address the fate of the thousands still in the program. She also said Biden should reject the Trump administration's health policy to expel future asylum seekers.

"[We] urge the Biden administration to provide information as quickly as possible about the process for asylum seekers who have been subjected to this policy to be brought into U.S. safety. Lives are on the line, and asylum seekers continue to be subjected to kidnappings, attacks and other targeted violence," she said in a statement. "The [Biden] administration should not adopt or extend the Trump administration’s misuse of public health authority and should not use public health as a pretext for expelling asylum seekers to places where their lives are in danger."

The "remain in Mexico" policy began in California and expanded to the Texas-Mexico border in early 2019. It’s forced more than 60,000 migrants back to Mexican border towns, many of which have grappled with high crime and little or no security.

More than 20,000 asylum seekers, mainly from Cuba and Central America, have been sent from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez under the program though it’s unclear how many remain. Mexican officials in the Mexican state of Chihuahua said it’s difficult to know how many migrants have given up and returned home, tried to cross illegally or have decided to remain in Mexico on their own.

Also on Wednesday, the president sent to Congress an immigration-reform bill Wednesday that contains several longer-term agenda items, including a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. The announcement about the MPP program cautions that that legislation will only apply to people already in the United States.