WASHINGTON — The director of the Arizona Department of Homeland Security told a panel of lawmakers Wednesday that migrant protection protocols, also known as the “stay in Mexico” policy for immigrants, help ensure the safety of Arizonans.
Tim Roemer told a House Homeland Security subcommittee that the policy, which was ordered by the courts after the Biden administration tried to end it, allows border agents to pass “less time chasing the same trafficker, smuggler and coyotes”.
“When applied correctly, the MPP helps protect the lives of all communities in Arizona and those across the country,” said Romer. “The MPP gives federal law enforcement the ability to arrest people who take advantage of the asylum system and makes the system work better for those who need it.”
But there’s no way to properly enforce the law, federal officials said the hearing. They repeated the administration’s concerns that the “stay in Mexico” policy is counterproductive and inhumane to migrants, who may face crime and disease when forced across the border.
“The MPP is not aligned with the values of this administration and imposes an unjustifiable human cost on migrants and diverts resources from larger efforts that seek to address the root causes of irregular migration,” Blas said. Nuñez-Neto, the Acting Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Border and Immigration Policy.
The hearing took place the same day protesters, including several from Arizona, gathered outside the White House to accuse Biden of not doing enough to protect immigrants.
“He’s the one who decided to implement this policy with the rest in Mexico,” said Arisaid Gonzalez, an Arizona native who serves as director of DC area campaigns for United We Dream, which organized Wednesday’s rally. “He had the opportunity to take it off and he didn’t, so he’s definitely part of the problem.”
The MPP was unveiled in January 2019 by the Trump administration. Under politics, border officials accepted the application of any migrant who showed up at the border seeking asylum – but then sent that immigrant back to wait in Mexico while their case was reviewed.
A year later, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the MPP was combined with Title 42, a law that allows the United States to turn away immigrants who pose a potential health risk.
Critics said both policies posed serious risks to the health and safety of migrants by forcing them to live in makeshift camps with poor sanitary conditions and little protection from criminals who were free to steal, rape, threaten and, in some cases, kill. Many migrants came from countries other than Mexico, leaving them with few options when turned away.
“We are very concerned about both the policy of staying in Mexico and the misuse of Title 42,” said Eleanor Acer, senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First. “Under these two policies, which originated under the Trump administration, the United States and now the Biden administration return people seeking asylum to places where their lives and safety are at risk.”
Biden retained the title 42, much to the chagrin of immigration advocates. But he tried to get rid of the MPP shortly after taking office, issuing a Executive Decree on February 2, 2021, to suspend the program, which was followed five months later by a memorandum from Homeland Security officially ending it.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas justified termination saying that the MPP has failed to improve border security or management, divert resources from other border missions and expose migrants to a “lack of stable access to housing, income and security”. This could cause some migrants to abandon “potentially meritorious protection claims”.
Texas and Missouri have filed suit, claiming that ending the MPP would mean an influx of immigrants into their states, while crushing DHS’s detention capacity, among other concerns. A U.S. District Court judge in North Texas agreed and in August ordered DHS to make a “good faith” effort to reinstate the program.
DHS restarted the program, even as it renewed its efforts to suppress it. The Supreme Court said last month it would hear the government’s request that it should be allowed to end the program, speeding up arguments for April.
In the meantime, the Biden administration has made two major changes to the program.
Where migrants previously had to tell officers they feared returning to Mexico, officers are now required to ask migrants. And the standard of proof needed to “demonstrate a reasonable possibility of persecution or torture in Mexico,” has been lowered, said Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
Roemer acknowledged the humanitarian concerns about the MPP. But he said these had to be weighed against the dangers of a wide-open asylum system for both migrants and Arizona residents.
“The MPP allows authorities to take meaningful action as opposed to the capture and release tactics of the past which are unfortunately becoming all too real today,” he said. It allows border officials to focus their activities on the worst actors, “effectively protecting Arizona and America from dangerous drugs and transnational criminal organizations that continue to prey on vulnerable populations.”
But for Ana, an undocumented immigrant from Arizona who was part of the rally outside the White House on Wednesday, the only real solution will be comprehensive immigration reform. Despite Biden’s promise to push through the reform, protesters noted that there have been 2 million deportations so far under his administration.
“I’m here because we just hear the same rhetoric, they always say promises and they never keep their promises,” Ana said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. “So that’s a lot of failures on their side.”