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Reversing Xenophobic Trump Policy, Biden to Allow 25,000 Asylum-Seekers Stuck in Mexico to Enter US

"It remains a legal and moral imperative that the U.S. government abide by national and international refugee law and provide these individuals with an opportunity to request asylum."

U.S. volunteer Mary Keenan of Brownsville, Texas hands out markers on December 8, 2019 during a class for immigrant children at a refugee camp near the Gateway International Bridge in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, where more than 1,000 Central American and Mexican asylum-seekers are awaiting their next court hearings. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

U.S. volunteer Mary Keenan of Brownsville, Texas hands out markers on December 8, 2019 during a class for immigrant children at a refugee camp near the Gateway International Bridge in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, where more than 1,000 Central American and Mexican asylum-seekers are awaiting their next court hearings. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The Biden administration on Friday announced plans to allow tens of thousands of asylum-seekers living in encampments near the border into the United States while they await their next immigration court hearings, fulfilling a campaign promise to end a Trump administration policy that forced asylum-seekers to endure dangerous conditions in Mexico pending legal review of their cases.

"Unfortunately, DHS's process for hearing these remaining cases relies on a virtual registration process that may actually exclude precisely those asylum-seekers who don't have access to technology and who are the most in need of protection."
—Austin Kocher, Syracuse University

The first of approximately 25,000 asylum-seekers with active cases who are waiting in Mexico will be permitted to enter the U.S. on February 19. Authorities "plan to start slowly with two border crossings each processing up to 300 people a day and a third crossing taking fewer," the Associated Press reported Friday. "Administration officials declined to name them out of fear they may encourage a rush of people to those locations."

AP described the move as "a major step toward dismantling one of former President Donald Trump's most consequential policies to deter asylum-seekers from coming to the U.S." 

Since the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy, officially called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), was introduced in 2019, the xenophobic program "exposed people to violence in Mexican border cities," AP noted, "and made it extremely difficult for them to find lawyers and communicate with courts about their cases."

According to an analysis of immigration court records by researchers at Syracuse University's Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse (TRAC):

  • 71,036 immigrants have been enrolled over the lifetime of MPP;
  • 29,148 immigrants have active pending cases under MPP;
  • 41,888 immigrants' MPP cases have been completed or closed;
  • Just 1.5% of completed cases (641 total) have been granted some form of relief; and
  • 86% of the immigrants with pending MPP cases do not have an attorney on file

On President Joe Biden's first day in office, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security suspended the "Remain in Mexico" policy for newly arriving immigrants seeking political asylum. Since January 20, "some asylum-seekers picked up at the border have been released in the U.S. with notices to appear in court," AP reported.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas cited the development as evidence of Biden quickly making good on his campaign promise to reverse Trump's policy.

"The U.S. government is committed to rebuilding a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system," said Mayorkas. "This latest action is another step in our commitment to reform immigration policies that do not align with our nation's values."

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According to AP:

Homeland Security said the move "should not be interpreted as an opening for people to migrate irregularly to the United States." Administration officials have said repeatedly that the vast majority of people who cross the border illegally are quickly expelled under a public health order in place since the pandemic struck in March, but releases of some asylum-seeking families in Texas and California has worked against that messaging.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that she was concerned that limited releases in the U.S. may encourage others to cross illegally because "we don't want people to put themselves in danger at a time where it is not the right time to come, because we have not had time to put in place a humane and moral system and process."

The coronavirus pandemic has further complicated matters, as "hearings for people enrolled in 'Remain in Mexico' have been suspended since June," AP reported. "Getting word out on when to report to the border for release in the United States may prove a daunting job."

DHS is expected to "announce a 'virtual registration process' available online and by phone for people to learn where and when they should report," according to the news outlet. DHS urged asylum-seekers, who will be tested for Covid-19 prior to entering the U.S., "not to report to the border unless instructed."

While Biden's announcement "provides no relief to people whose cases were dismissed or denied... administration officials did not rule out additional measures," AP noted. "Advocates argue that communication problems, including lack of working addresses in Mexico, caused some to miss hearings and lose their cases as a result."

Progressive critics worry that moving from a communication process reliant on physical addresses to an internet and phone-based system might not solve the problem of vulnerable migrants being denied a chance in court.

Austin Kocher, a faculty fellow at TRAC, said that "unfortunately, DHS's process for hearing these remaining cases relies on a virtual registration process that may actually exclude precisely those asylum-seekers who don't have access to technology and who are the most in need of protection."

"Although some people with pending cases may have given up after waiting for their hearing or due to violence in northern Mexico," Kocher added, "it remains a legal and moral imperative that the U.S. government abide by national and international refugee law and provide these individuals with an opportunity to request asylum."

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