U.S. and Mexico reach deal to restart Trump-era ‘Remain in Mexico’ program along border

The Biden administration has reached a deal with the Mexican government to restart the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program that requires asylum seekers to wait outside U.S. territory while their claims are processed, U.S. officials told reporters Thursday morning.

Implementation of the program, formerly known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), will begin Monday at one border location and quickly expand to San Diego and in the Texas cities of Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso, said the administration officials, who briefed reporters on condition they not be identified.

The U.S. officials said they expected Mexican authorities to announce the agreement Thursday.

“Mexico has demanded a number of humanitarian improvements as conditions of agreeing to accept enrollees,” said one U.S. official, including guarantees that asylum seekers will have access to legal counsel and their humanitarian claims will be processed within 180 days.

“These are improvements we agree with,” the official said.

The Trump administration used the MPP program to return more than 60,000 asylum seekers across the border to Mexico, where they were often preyed upon by criminal gangs, extortionists and kidnappers. President Biden denounced MPP as inhumane and quickly ended it after taking office, but Republican officials in Texas and Missouri sued the administration in federal court and won an injunction in August forcing the government to resurrect the program.

The Biden administration will offer coronavirus vaccines to asylum seekers placed in the MPP program, the officials said. Adults will be offered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and eligible minors will be able to receive the two-dose Pfizer regimen.

The shots would not be mandatory, and they will be provided to migrants in U.S. Border Patrol stations by an independent contractor, the officials said.

The Department of Justice has assigned 22 immigration judges to oversee the MPP restart and ensure claims are processed rapidly to comply with the 180-day timeline, officials said.

Biden officials have spent the past several weeks negotiating the terms of the restart with the Mexican government, which wanted the Biden administration to provide assurances that asylum seekers’ cases would be processed expeditiously.

Officials in the United States are planning to initially use the MPP program primarily for single adult asylum seekers, who account for the majority of illegal border crossings, according to one official. Mexico is willing to accept asylum seekers from Spanish-speaking countries, as with the previous version of the program, but migrants from “all western hemisphere nations” will be eligible for return, one administration official said.

The Biden administration will continue to use the Title 42 public health law — which allows U.S. authorities to rapidly “expel” most border crossers — as its primary border management tool. In recent weeks, the administration has increased the percentage of migrants returned to Mexico or sent home on “expulsion flights” under Title 42, which generally does not afford asylum seekers a chance to apply for U.S. humanitarian protections.

Two U.S. officials with knowledge of the plans said the restart of MPP would probably begin slowly and ramp up, but the two countries were still discussing numerical targets and ironing out other details ahead of the announcement. Temporary “tent courts” in Brownsville and Laredo have been under construction but may not be fully ready to begin holding hearings next week, one official said.

The return of MPP is awkward for the Biden administration, which is still formally preparing to end the program even as it brings it back under court order.

“MPP had endemic flaws, imposed unjustifiable human costs, pulled resources and personnel away from other priority efforts, and did not address the root causes of irregular migration,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an October statement.

“MPP not only undercuts the Administration’s ability to implement critically needed and foundational changes to the immigration system, it fails to provide the fair process and humanitarian protections that individuals deserve under the law,” he said.

Mexico has expressed concern about the implementation of the program, releasing a statement last week outlining several “humanitarian concerns,” including the living conditions of asylum seekers, and their access to legal representation and medical care.

But when the program was first implemented under the Trump administration, Mexico did little to assist or protect the tens of thousands of migrants who waited for their asylum claims to be processed. Many of them lived in tent camps, shelters or rented apartments in some of the country’s most dangerous cities.

Human Rights First, a New York-based nonprofit organization, recorded at least 1,544 “violent attacks” against migrants returned to Mexico under the program.

Some Mexican officials believed the program functioned as deterrent and would lead to fewer migrants transiting through the country, even though it effectively created refugee camps along the border. But after Biden suspended the policy, Mexico bristled against the idea of implementing it once again in response to the court order.

“A judicial decision of this type does not bind Mexico and that its immigration policy is designed and executed in a sovereign manner,” Roberto Velasco Álvarez, head of the North America division of the Foreign Ministry in August.

When U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ordered the Biden administration to restart MPP, faulting the White House for ending it without fully considering the consequences, he acknowledged it could only return with Mexico’s consent.

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Nick Miroff and Kevin Sieff