WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

18 Feb 2021 | WOLA Statement

Biden Administration Must Work Closely With Mexico in Winding Down ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) announcement that on February 19 it will begin admitting people under the “Remain in Mexico” program into the United States to pursue their asylum cases is a welcome step towards restoring access to asylum for an especially victimized population. It is also a first, crucial piece of the larger puzzle of dismantling the humanitarian disaster that the Trump administration created at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Over the two years of the Remain in Mexico program (perversely known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” or MPP), U.S. authorities sent over 70,000 asylum seekers to await their immigration hearings in Mexican border cities, some of which rank among the world’s most dangerous. 

Remain in Mexico represents the Trump administration’s anti-asylum policies in all their cruelty: when families and individuals sought protection, often fleeing from deadly violence in their countries of origin, the U.S. government’s response was to direct them back into territory in which there have been over 1,300 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other attacks against MPP-enrolled migrants. Even if they manage to avoid attacks, MPP victims frequently live in makeshift camps along the border, where their health, sanitary, shelter, and other basic needs are frequently unmet.

With U.S. authorities poised to begin processing MPP victims’ entry into U.S. territory, the Biden administration must  work closely with the Mexican government and relevant international agencies and civil society organizations to ensure that those eligible to enter are able to do so safely and in a timely manner. 

Mexican authorities in particular have a crucial role to play during the MPP wind-down: while thousands of MPP victims continue to wait at the border, others have sought out safer places to wait in Mexican territory and will now need to journey back to the border, highlighting the need to guarantee attention and protection to both populations.

For the U.S. side of the border, key recommendations include:

  • Work in close coordination with U.S. service providers and reception centers, so that asylum seekers released into the United States are promptly transferred into their care. Alternatives to detention should be applied in all cases that do not represent a security risk—there is no justification for locking up children and families. 
  • Any account of a failure by a CBP official to adequately process asylum seekers—or of mistreating asylum seekers—should be promptly investigated and sanctioned. 
  • Issue crystal clear communication to the population of MPP-enrolled migrants (and to the larger population of asylum seekers in Mexico and Central America) regarding asylum timetables, requirements, and what to expect at the border. 

For the Mexico side of the border, key recommendations include:

  • Work with relevant international agencies to provide shelter for the MPP population returning to the border (and to those already at the border without adequate living conditions), in consultation with civil society. Temporary housing is needed for those waiting to cross into the United States because they will need to arrive in advance to be tested for COVID-19 prior to entry. Shelter should allow for social distancing.
  • Provide basic health and other services as needed.
  • Ensure MPP victims’ protection from criminal attacks, including by state agents, in light of the documented history of extreme violence against migrants in Mexico, of which the recent massacre of 19 people in Tamaulipas serves as a grim reminder. This should include safety for asylum seekers who are not currently at the designated ports of entry.
  • Guarantee that individuals under Remain in Mexico who have expired Mexican migration documents will be able to travel unimpeded to the designated ports of entry. 

The plan announced by DHS represents only phase one of reopening the U.S. asylum system, as it just applies to people with active MPP cases (about 25,000 people, according to DHS) who are outside of U.S. territory. Further phases will address people without active cases or who have already entered the United States. 

The Biden administration has yet to announce any plans to address the over 16,000 people who had placed their names on waitlists in Mexican border towns in order to request asylum at a U.S. port of entry. Nor are there plans to address the thousands of others who have been turned back into Mexico in recent years, especially through the U.S. policy of expelling people through an abuse of public health authority (known at Title 42 expulsions, in place since March 2020) without even giving them the chance to make asylum requests. The Title 42 policy—issued over objections from senior officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—has led to the expulsion of at least 13,000 children who crossed the border alone, and continues to drive more than 2,000 daily expulsions at the border. Nor is it clear whether the 40,000 victims of Remain in Mexico whose cases were closed without anything resembling due process will be granted another opportunity to apply for asylum via a process that is fair and rights-respecting.    

The coordinated implementation of this phase of the MPP wind-down should serve as a model upon which to build the subsequent necessary phases of the reopening of the U.S. asylum system. This is a first step towards remedying part of the immense harm inflicted on asylum seekers by the Trump administration. Guaranteeing a fair and safe process to those who have already suffered such harm is a relevant place to start. 

The task does not end here, however: while data from the border do not support theories of a dramatic “surge” of migration under the Biden administration, the ongoing severity of the region’s push factors means that, for the foreseeable future, new people will continue to seek safety at our borders, and each one of them has the right to a fair process as well. Ending summary expulsions and taking straightforward administrative steps to process asylum seekers without excessive backlogs or needless detention will be key steps to build an asylum system that reflects a commitment to human rights and dignity.