Remain in Mexico Policy Explained (May 2021 update)

In January 2019, in attempts to reduce the number of foreign nationals exploiting the U.S. immigration system and to discourage false asylum claims, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) introduced a new policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the Remain in Mexico policy, aimed at resolving the security and humanitarian crises at the U.S.-Mexico border. Under MPP, inadmissible immigrants attempting to enter the U.S. at the Southern border and seeking political asylum in the U.S. had to remain in Mexico until their court hearing dates when U.S. immigration judges make decisions on their cases.

 The number of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. has been steeply increasing during the recent years and the overall demographics have changed. If previously the majority of asylum applicants from Latin America were single males, now more than half of the illegal immigrants are families or unaccompanied children, predominantly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The MPP policy was designed with the intention not only to secure the border and enforce proper implementation of immigration laws, but also to protect the asylum seekers from criminals who may take advantage of their vulnerable position and involve them in illegal activities, such as human trafficking, drug trade, and smuggling. 

Under the new ruling, Illegal and undocumented immigrants seeking political asylum who attempted to enter the U.S. though San Ysidro (CA), Calexico (CA), Nogales (AZ), El Paso (TX), Eagle Pass (TX), Laredo (TX), and Brownsville (TX) ports of entry were placed under MPP. They were not allowed to enter to the U.S., instead, they were issued a notice to appear for an immigration court hearing and sent back to Mexico awaiting the date. However, certain categories of applicants, namely, Mexican nationals, unaccompanied children, and individuals who were deemed to face persecution and torture in Mexico, were exempt from MPP. On the date of the immigration court hearings, individuals were allowed to enter the U.S. with a status of “parole,” and then transferred by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to a local immigration court. Asylum seekers under the MPP program were usually given only one hour before the hearing to consult with their attorneys.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found the policy illegal and inhumane for a number of reasons. Even though the policy was originally developed to protect immigrants from criminals in the U.S., having returned to Mexico, many of them continued to be persecuted on protected grounds and have a reasonable fear for their lives and freedom. Moreover, some asylum seekers under MPP, who were sent to immigration courts in Laredo and Brownsville, had to pass through and/or stay in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which is under control of criminal syndicates, and where the level of danger is comparable to those of Yemen and Afghanistan. Human Rights First, a human rights organization, has reported that more than one thousand incidents of serious crimes, such as rape, torture, and kidnappings, were committed against asylum seekers while they waited for their trail in Mexico. 

The Mexican government provided shelters for some of MPP applicants, but in many instances living conditions were poor, without electricity and running water. Some of the applicants remain homeless. Another concern is that such immigrants have little to no access to immigration attorneys to help them prepare for their hearings, and with that, only about 1 percent of asylum seekers who had to stay in Mexico had their asylum claims approved. Some of them, after staying in poor conditions for an extended period of time, either had to abandon their claims and return home, or were not able to reach immigration courts in time and ordered to be deported in absentia. 

Despite the widespread criticism and the Circuit Court of Appeals’s decision, on March 11, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to continue carrying out the Remain in Mexico policy. Later, following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S., immigration judges stopped hearing MPP cases from March 2020 through the end of 2020, leaving thousands of applicants in a state of limbo in Mexico, and the DHS continued preventing new asylum seekers from Central America who were trying to enter the U.S. at the Southern border, from entering the U.S. Overall, since the policy’s inception in January 2019, some 70,000 immigrants had to remain in Mexico, and about just a half of them have had their cases decided by immigration judges.  

After President Joe Biden came to power in January 2021, he directed the government to stop MPP on his very first day in office. On February 12, 2021, the Biden Administration announced their plans to allow 25,000 asylum seekers who previously had to stay in Mexico, to enter the U.S. and wait for their court hearings in the cities of their final destinations. Further, the authorities plan to slowly allow the remaining MPP applicants to enter, admitting some 300 of them per day. 

UPDATE (May, 2021)

After President Joe Biden cancelled the Remain in Mexico program in February 2021, also known as Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), asylum seekers under this category were slowly allowed to enter the U.S. to await their court hearing dates. Previously, MPP applicants had to remain in Mexico and could only cross the border under parole on the day of the hearing. For many of them the wait lasted more than one year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to which many immigration courts were closed, and did not hear cases for several months, and afterwards continued working at a reduced capacity after reopening.  

The initial number of applicants allowed to enter the U.S. in February was some 4,000, and their number almost doubled as of the end of April 2021. More than 8,000 asylum seekers with MPP were transferred over the border to continue pursuing their cases already in the U.S. Altogether, it is estimated that more than 70,000 applicants were forced to wait for their court hearings in migrant camps in Mexico while the MPP was in effect. 

Most of the 8,000 MPP applicants are entering the U.S. in Texas through Brownsville, El Paso, and Laredo ports of entry. The El Paso Immigration Court sees the most increase in MPP hearings, from 1,357 to 3,362 pending cases, as the majority of MPP applicants used to live or still live in camps in the city of Juarez, which is just across the U.S.- Mexican border from El Paso. In contrast, another border state, California, sees the smallest number of new immigrants. The number of MPP in Calexico and San Ysidro Immigration Courts has been increased by a mere 20 percent. 

The top nations supplying MPP cases are Venezuela, Cuba, and El Salvador, closely followed by Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia. Other nations who made it to the top 10 are Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador. The most popular final destinations for MPP applicants are Miami, Fla., Orlando, Fla., and Dallas, TX., and Houston, TX.

The MPP program was heavily criticized for giving its applicants little chance for successfully pursuing their asylum claims. The immigrants had to stay in temporary Mexican migrant camps with poor conditions and in many cases court correspondence did not reach them, making them essentially abandon their claims and receive deportation decisions in absentia. Another issue is that more than 90 percent of MPP applicants did not have access to immigration attorneys, which considerably decreases their chances to be granted political asylum in U.S. courts. 

Photo by Phil Botha

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