U.S. prepared to restart “Remain in Mexico” border policy in November

The Biden administration announced Friday it will be prepared to start returning asylum-seekers to Mexico next month under a Trump-era policy it has previously denounced — as long as the Mexican government accepts the returns.

Granting a request by Republican attorneys general in Texas and Missouri, a federal judge in August ordered the Biden administration to reinstate the so-called “Remain in Mexico” border program, which required 70,000 non-Mexican migrants to wait outside the U.S. for their asylum hearings.

While it is appealing that decision and planning to terminate the policy a second time, the Biden administration is currently legally obligated to comply with the August court order in “good faith.” If Mexico agrees to support the policy’s revival, the U.S. could start enrolling migrants in the program “sometime in mid-November,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters Thursday.

“That is conditional on Mexico’s independent decision whether or not to accept those that the United States seeks to enroll in MPP,” the official stressed, using the policy’s formal name: the Migrant Protection Protocols.

To show it is complying with the court order, the administration said it is hiring contractors to rebuild tent courts in Laredo and Bronsville, Texas, where asylum-seekers returned to Mexico would attend hearings on their petitions for U.S. refuge.

Administration officials said they are working on making several changes to the “Remain in Mexico” program to ensure the policy better reflects the Biden administration’s commitment to treat migrants fairly and address concerns raised by the Mexican government.

The proposed changes, the officials said, include ensuring migrants have access to lawyers and legal information; a “general commitment” to complete court cases within six months of a migrant being returned to Mexico; and expanding the categories of asylum-seekers who can be considered too vulnerable to be returned to Mexican border cities plagued by rampant crime and violence.

“Reimplementation is not something that the administration has wanted to do. We are doubling down on the affirmation of our decision to terminate MPP. But in the interim, we are under this obligation of the court. And making sure that individuals, when they are returned to Mexico, are treated humanely is of course one of the highest priorities,” one administration official said.

A Department of Homeland Security memo to terminate the policy once again is expected to be “finalized shortly,” but an administration official stressed that it would not take effect until a higher court suspends the August ruling that mandated the policy’s reinstatement.

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Camilo Montoya-Galvez