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Migrant Justice: For U.S. and Mexico, awkward first steps to restart Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’

Nick Miroff and Mary Beth Sheridan. Washington Post. August 31, 2021

The Biden administration has initiated talks with the Mexican government to restart the “Remain in Mexico” program and once more send asylum seekers outside U.S. territory while their cases are processed, as federal courts have ordered. But early indications suggest the controversial Trump-era policy may not return on a large scale.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s Aug. 13 ruling faulted the Biden administration for scrapping the policy without providing sufficient reasoning or consideration of the consequences. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the order last week.

Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee, directed the government to restore the program, officially known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), “in good faith.” That has left administration officials in the awkward position of having to ask Mexico to help reinstate a policy Biden denounced on the campaign trail as “dangerous,” “inhumane” and “against everything we stand for as a nation of immigrants.”

Mexican officials say they intend to continue cooperating with the United States on immigration management and border controls, and “technical talks” to discuss restarting MPP will occur as part of ongoing conversations about migration. Their capacity to take back more U.S. asylum seekers and migrants remains limited, however, and they regard other enforcement tools and policies to be more effective, according to two Mexican officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about the incipient U.S. discussions.

In a statement, Roberto Velasco, chief officer for North America at Mexico’s foreign ministry, said his country is urging the Biden administration to immediately increase funding for aid programs to Central America in order to ease migration pressures.

“The Mexican government, in coordination with the U.S. government, is moving forward under our laws and international law in favor of orderly, safe, routine migration,” Velasco said. “However, what’s needed is a major, large-scale U.S. effort to deal with the root causes of migration, using policies that achieve short-term results.”

In private, Mexican officials said they are waiting to see how U.S. officials propose to restore “Remain in Mexico,” and whether they have a plan to avoid the aspects of the program’s last iteration when rights groups documented the abuse of returned migrants by criminal gangs.

Mexico does not have the resources to take in asylum seekers on an indefinite basis, as it did last time, said Martha Bárcena, the former Mexican ambassador who negotiated the “Remain in Mexico” implementation with Trump officials.

“I think Mexico is willing to help asylum seekers on a humanitarian basis, as long as the numbers are manageable,” Bárcena said, in an interview. “But the lesson from the last time was that the U.S. doesn’t keep its promise to rapidly process their cases.”

In June 2019, as record numbers of Central American families crossed into the United States, President Donald Trump threatened to torpedo the Mexican economy with escalating tariffs unless its government agreed to a broad crackdown. Mexico accepted the border-wide expansion of the “Remain in Mexico” plan, and the number of asylum seekers sent back under the policy eventually reached roughly 70,000.

Illegal border crossings plunged in the months that followed the expansion, but immigrant advocacy groups abhorred the policy for exposing migrants to precarious conditions in dangerous Mexican border cities where thousands became victims of kidnappings, rapes and extortion.

The Trump administration’s use of “Remain in Mexico” fell sharply after March 2020, when U.S. officials responded to the pandemic by using Title 42 of the U.S. public health code to rapidly “expel” border crossers without allowing them to seek asylum.

Chad Wolf, the interim Department of Homeland Security secretary at the time, said Trump officials pivoted to Title 42 as their primary border management tool in part because the pandemic had crippled the immigration court system, limiting their ability to assign court appointments to asylum seekers. “We were always trying to figure out when we could turn MPP back on, and how to re-enroll people once the system opened back up,” Wolf said in an interview.

Wolf and other Trump officials have assailed the Biden administration for ending MPP and ditching other deterrent policies, particularly as the number of illegal crossings have skyrocketed in recent months to the highest levels in more than two decades.

The influx has left Biden officials even more dependent on Mexican enforcement cooperation to help stem the flow, putting Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in a better position to limit the resumption of “Remain in Mexico,” said Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

“The Mexican government has more leverage to set the terms of what happens here,” Selee said.

But Tonatiuh Guillén, the former head of Mexico’s national immigration service, predicted that Mexico would go along with whatever the U.S. government wanted to do.

“There’s a practical willingness to adapt to the plans established by the U.S. government. That means that MPP will be reactivated, without much resistance on the part of the Mexican government, or a lot of conditions attached,” he said.

In recent weeks Mexico has allowed the United States for the first time to begin sending Central American migrants deep into southern Mexico on Title 42 “expulsion flights.” From there, Mexican security forces load Central American adults and children onto buses and deport them.

One Mexican official involved in talks with the United States described the flights as a more effective border management tool than the “Remain in Mexico” program because they relocates migrants away from Mexican border cities where they are vulnerable to attack and incentivized to attempt repeat crossings because of their proximity to the United States.

Mexico has deployed its military and national guard to deter U.S.-bound migrants and has vastly expanded its own asylum program. In the first six months of this year, 51,634 people requested asylum, putting Mexico on track for a record.

But it’s straining to cope with the large numbers of arrivals. Mexican officials have expressed frustration that the U.S. government isn’t moving faster to give Central American migrants an incentive to stay home — through aid programs that will channel cash to them quickly.

Migrant shelters run by charitable and religious groups along the U.S. border have filled to capacity. Meanwhile the Mexican refugee agency is underfunded, and applicants are facing long delays. Most are confined to the poor southern border state of Chiapas while they await legal documents.

On Saturday, hundreds of asylum seekers formed a caravan and set out from Tapachula, in Chiapas, hoping to reach Mexico City to get their asylum claims processed. Immigration agents and national guard troops in riot gear blocked the marchers, who were mostly from Haiti. Videos posted on social media showed an agent kicking one of the asylum seekers in the head, and national guard members beating a migrant accompanied by a child.

Facing a storm of criticism, the Mexican migration agency said Sunday that its agents had acted “inappropriately” and that it “condemns any action that endangers the human rights” of migrants.

Kacsmaryk has ordered the Biden administration to file monthly reports to the court detailing its efforts to restore MPP, with the first one due Sept. 15.