Immigrant advocates and human rights groups quickly denounced the policy change as illegal and violating the rights of refugees.
Mexico’s government said that it would accept some of those who are waiting for humanitarian reasons, in what many will see as an early concession to US President Donald Trump‘s administration by Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office on December 1.
“We want to discourage those who are claiming asylum fraudulently,” US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told a congressional committee on Thursday, describing the plan.
In response to the plan, Mexico’s foreign ministry underscored that it still has the right to admit or reject the entry of foreigners into its territory.
“Mexico’s government has decided to take the following actions to benefit migrants, in particular, unaccompanied and accompanied minors, and to protect the rights of those who want to start an asylum process in the United States,” the foreign ministry said.
The ministry said the actions taken by the Mexican and US governments do not constitute a “safe third country” scheme, where migrants would have to request US asylum while in Mexico.
Department of Homeland Security officials told reporters on condition of anonymity that the Mexican government has said asylum seekers would have access to attorneys in Mexico and that migrants would be able to enter the US for their court hearings, without giving more details about how the process would work.
“Operationally this will look a little bit different at different ports of entry simply based on what the infrastructure is like in the area,” said one official. “We are not implementing this on the entire US border all at once.”
In response to questioning from Democratic US Representative Zoe Lofgren during her congressional testimony, Nielsen said the new policy will not apply to Central American unaccompanied children, who have some special protections under US law.
Serious doubts remain over whether Mexico can keep vulnerable asylum seekers safe. Authorities are investigating the deaths of two Honduran teenagers kidnapped and killed in the border city of Tijuana last weekend.
Immigrant and human rights advocates swiftly denounced the new policy, saying it violated international law and would put migrants at further risk.
“Make no mistake – Mexico is not a safe country for all people seeking protection,” said Amnesty International Executive Director Margaret Huang. “Many people seeking asylum in the United States face discrimination, exploitation, sexual assault, murder, or the possibility of being disappeared while travelling through Mexico or while forced to wait for extraordinarily long times in Mexican border towns.”
Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte, the outgoing chair of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, praised the Trump administration for having reached the deal with Mexico.
“This agreement made under statutory authority will enable true asylum seekers to seek that status in a safe and orderly manner,” Goodlatte said in a statement.
Trump tweeted on November 24 that migrants at the US-Mexico border would stay in Mexico until their asylum claims were individually approved in US courts.
But Kennji Kizuka of the nonprofit group Human Rights First said serious questions remain about the implementation of the plan.
“The administration seems to have no plan,” Kizuka said in a statement. “Will lawyers be able to visit their clients before hearings? Where will those hearings take place? We know that access to counsel is one of the most important factors in whether or not an asylum seeker is able to live in safety in the United States.”
The new policy comes as Trump continues his efforts to sow fear over the thousands of refugees and migrants who have made their way from Central America to the US-Mexico border since mid-October. Many are fleeing violence, political persecution or extreme poverty.
Since arriving at the border last month, those part of the collective exodus who wish to apply for asylum have been told that they may have to wait up to two months before being able to claim asylum in the US. At the port of entry in Tijuana, among other locations, migrants and refugees are managing an informal list of those wishing to cross into the US to apply.
The delay and dire conditions at the border have prompted many to cross into the US between officials ports, where most are held. Others have made the journey back to their homes in Central America.
Rights groups have accused the US government of intentionally stalling processing at the border to deter migrants and refugees from making the journey north. US officials have denied the accusations.
Meanwhile, Trump has sent mixed signals this week on whether he will allow a government shutdown if Congress does not give him the $5bn he has requested for his proposed border wall.
On Thursday, as the midnight Friday deadline loomed to avert a shutdown, Republican House leadership said Trump would not sign a compromise temporary spending deal, citing the president’s dispute with Democrats over wall funding.