US President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday announced plans for tens of thousands of asylum seekers waiting in Mexico for their next immigration court hearings to be allowed into the United States while their cases proceed.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a press release it “will begin phase one of a program to restore safe and orderly processing at the southwest border. DHS will begin processing people who had been forced to ‘remain in Mexico‘ under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Approximately 25,000 individuals in MPP continue to have active cases.”
The first of these 25,000 asylum seekers in Mexico with active cases will be allowed in the US on February 19, authorities said. Asylum seekers will be tested for COVID-19 before crossing the border.
The new programme will “scale up” to processing 300 people a day at border points, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told US broadcaster National Public Radio (NPR) on Friday.
The moves are part of a plan by the administration of President Joe Biden to end the MPP, which forced more than 65,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers back across the border to wait for their US court hearings, although far fewer are believed to still be in Mexico.
The Trump administration launched the controversial programme in 2019 as part of a wide-ranging crackdown on the ability to seek asylum in the US, depicted by Trump officials as rife with fraud and meritless claims.
“We have identified as approximately 25,000 individuals have active cases in the programme. And we are focused on providing them with access to our asylum system,” Mayorkas told NPR.
When pressed on those who may have left Mexico, Mayorkas replied the US has “built a programme with international organisations, in cooperation with the government of Mexico, to actually build a virtual platform, so that individuals who are spread out geographically can register in the programme remotely”.
DHS said the move “should not be interpreted as an opening for people to migrate irregularly to the United States”.
“Individuals who are not eligible under this initial phase should wait for further instructions and not travel to the border,” Mayorkas said in a statement. “Due to the current pandemic, restrictions at the border remain in place and will be enforced.”
Hearings for people enrolled in “Remain in Mexico” have been suspended since June due to the pandemic.
The announcement provides no relief to people whose cases were dismissed or denied, though administration officials did not rule out additional measures. Advocates argue that communication problems, including a lack of working addresses in Mexico, caused some to miss hearings and lose their cases as a result.
Melissa Crow, a Southern Poverty Law Center senior supervising attorney who is litigating two cases challenging MPP, commended the move in a statement, but said “the administration must work to expand this effort to ensure that everyone affected by this policy has a meaningful opportunity to present their asylum claim – including people who received removal orders without even being able to attend their hearings and those with pending appeals.”
More people are getting stopped crossing the border irregularly since Biden took office.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Thursday warned migrants hoping to cross the border, saying that due to policy changes, “people think that now the doors are open, that President Biden is going to immediately regularise all migrants”.
“It is not true that everyone can go now to the United States and they will be regularised, that has not been defined yet,” Lopez Obrador said. “Our brother migrants should have this information so that they won’t be deceived by human traffickers, who paint a rosy picture.”
Raul Ortiz, deputy chief of the Border Patrol, said on Tuesday that more than 3,000 people had been stopped crossing the border in each of the previous 10 days, compared with a daily average of 2,426 in January.
About 50 to 80 adults and children have been arriving daily since January 27 at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which temporarily houses people released by the Border Patrol, said Sister Norma Pimentel, the group’s executive director. The charity tests for COVID-19 and sends anyone who tests positive to a hotel for isolation.
The Jewish Family Service of San Diego housed 191 asylum seekers in the first 10 days of February after they were released by US authorities, up from 144 in January and 54 in December, said Eitan Peled, the group’s border services advocate.
They are quarantined in hotels for 10 days.