The United States government late on Monday said all court hearings for many seeking asylum in the US who are currently in Mexico would be postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, prompting outrage by immigrant advocates who have called for the programme to be ended altogether.
“Due to circumstances resulting from COVID-19, all Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) master calendar and merit hearings presently scheduled through April 22 will be rescheduled,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.
In a bid to slash asylum claims, the administration of President Donald Trump launched MPP, informally known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, in January 2019, which forced more than 57,000 non-Mexican migrants to wait in Mexico for their US immigration court hearings.
“Neither the MPP program nor any hearings will be canceled,” the DOJ statement said.
The statement directed those with cancelled hearing dates to report to their port of entry on the US-Mexico border to receive a new hearing date.
‘Delays make dangerous limbo even worse’
Critics of MPP have called on the DOJ to end MPP and postpone immigration courts in order to contain health risks caused by the hearings. Many called Monday’s decision “dangerous and confusing”.
Taylor Levy, a private lawyer based in San Antonio, said on Twitter before Monday’s announcement that it was “imperative that we shut down the immigration courts” and end MPP, allowing asylum seekers to shelter in place with their loved ones in the US.
It is absolutely imperative that we shut down the immigration courts (except for telephonic bond hearings) and #EndMPP. Everyone in #MPP & detention has a safe home to return to in the US to shelter in place, #SafeAndTogether. Stop risking lives @DOJ_EOIR and do the right thing! https://t.co/iMy0927aJX
— Taylor Levy (@taylorklevy) March 22, 2020
“Coronavirus delays will make this dangerous limbo even worse,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy council at the American Immigration Council.
I ran the numbers. Through January, more than 5,000 people had already been waiting in Mexico for more than six months.
Coronavirus delays will make this dangerous limbo even worse. pic.twitter.com/VVKfosAiwR
— Aaron Reichlin-Melnick (@ReichlinMelnick) March 24, 2020
Monday’s decision “forces incredibly vulnerable families into overcrowded encampments that are physically and financially unable to properly combat a pandemic outbreak. [ICE] has the power to #ParoleThemAll to their families and keep them #SafeandTogether.
This forces incredibly vulnerable families into overcrowded encampments that are physically and financially unable to properly combat a pandemic outbreak. @ICEgov has the power to #ParoleThemAll to their families and keep them #SafeandTogether. https://t.co/CagTTsnpkA
— ImmDef (@ImmDef) March 24, 2020
MPP looks set to continue for the time being, however.
The Supreme Court decided on March 11 to lift a ban on the MPP policy pending their decision on an appeal from a lower court.
The justices stayed a Ninth Circuit Court ruling from two weeks prior that declared the policy illegal. Had the Supreme Court allowed the decision to remain, asylum seekers who crossed the border in Arizona and California would not have been subject to MPP.
MPP has been widely criticised by rights groups who say immigrants and asylum seekers sent back to Mexico are vulnerable to kidnapping, rape, robbery and other crimes while living in sometimes unsanitary conditions.
According to Antonio Arrellano, interim director of immigrant rights advocate group Jolt, MPP is a threat both to both the immigrants and the international reputation of the US.
The policy “hurts America’s standing on the world stage, puts vulnerable people in jeopardy and perpetuates the codified racism of the Trump administration”, Arrellano said in a statement following the Supreme Court decision.