President Biden halted returns when he took office, but in September a US district court ordered his administration to reinstate the program, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols. After months of negotiations with Mexico, the Biden administration revived the MPP in early December, starting with El Paso.
Immigration advocates were furious, blaming Biden for not pushing back harder. But two months after its reboot, the new version of the MPP bears little resemblance to that of President Donald Trump. The Biden administration has reimplemented the program with a narrow scope and without the zeal that Trump officials have shown.
Border arrests are even higher now than in 2019, but El Paso immigration courts remain light on MPP cases. On a recent afternoon, two MPP registrants, both adult males from Nicaragua, appeared before Immigration Judge Nathan L. Herbert. The next day, they were three.
“Are you afraid to return to Nicaragua? Herbert asked the men, who were waiting in Ciudad Juárez for their court appointment after being arrested by US border agents six weeks earlier near Del Rio, Texas. The men answered yes.
Herbert scheduled their asylum hearings for early March and asked the men if they feared returning to Mexico. They said yes. A US asylum officer would need to assess their claims before they can be returned to Ciudad Juárez.
Trump has returned nearly 70,000 asylum seekers to Mexico under the MPP, using the program as a deterrent to the record number of Central American families crossing the border and hoping to be released in the United States while they wait. court hearings. Kidnappings, robberies and other attacks on asylum seekers returned to Mexico were rampant, and thousands of MPP enrollees languished in a filthy Rio Grande tented camp that has become a symbol of MPP dysfunction.
The biggest difference under Biden has been the magnitude of the returns. His administration was ordered to reinstate the MPP “in good faith,” but the court did not set quotas. The Department of Homeland Security has so far returned about 410 MPP registrants, according to the latest UN figures, which equates to about seven asylum seekers a day across the border, compared to 300 to 400 returned daily in the summer of 2019.
UN figures show the number of returns fell from around 270 in December to around 140 in January.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), whose lawsuit forced Biden to restart the MPP, called the low numbers “outrageous”.
“I got a win in District Court that forces Biden to re-implement Stay in Mexico,” Paxton wrote in a tweet. “Biden MUST use the MPP to return illegal immigrants to Mexico. It violates the court order, and I won’t let it stand.
Paxton’s office did not respond to calls seeking clarification on what additional legal remedies, if any, it is considering.
Biden officials say the numbers will rise over the next few months. But they limited the program almost exclusively to adult men, while exempting those considered vulnerable on the basis of mental and physical health issues, advanced age, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Biden has used the MPP almost exclusively for young men from Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. These nations have strained relations with the United States – the US government does not even recognize Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela as the country’s legitimate president – which makes deportations difficult.
Biden officials say they are selecting migrants from those countries for the MPP because Mexico will not accept their return under the emergency public health authority known as Title 42, which has been used during the coronavirus pandemic and remains the U.S. government’s primary border management tool. It allows US authorities to bypass standard immigration procedures and quickly “deport” migrants, including asylum seekers, to their home countries or to Mexico to prevent the spread of infections inside detention centers.
Fewer returns, but for some a welcome shot at American asylum
Mexico has set limits on the return of migrants by US authorities, insisting that MPP returns should only take place if there is sufficient shelter space and quarantine capacity for those whose test is positive for coronavirus. U.S. officials said they are working with Mexico to build its capacity to take in more MPP enrollees.
“We are subject to Mexico’s requirements in terms of the restrictions they place on people subject to returns, and we have just been impacted by the omicron variant, which has had a substantial impact on our ability to return people,” said a senior Homeland Ministry official. A security official who described operational details of the program on condition of anonymity, citing ongoing litigation.
The DHS official also attributed the low MPP numbers to limited US capacity and additional safeguards added under Biden. US officials are now asking MPP candidates if they fear a return to Mexico, which officials have not done under Trump. About 85-90% of MPP enrollees say they fear being injured in Mexico; 10-15% face a “reasonable possibility” of harm, the official said.
The Biden administration drafted a new memo seeking to end the MPP. But officials say they will abide by the court order as long as the injunction remains in place, and they plan to expand the program over the next few months if strains on shelter capacity and virus staffing ease. On Friday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals certified its dismissal of the Biden administration’s challenge to the lower court’s order reinstating the MPP. The court rejected the government’s arguments a sharp 117-page opinion in December.
MPP will expand next to Laredo, Texas, and has already been reimplemented in San Diego and Brownsville, Texas, as well as El Paso.
GOP critics say the Biden administration is flouting the court and wasting a proven enforcement tool that discourages bogus asylum claims, pointing to the MPP’s role in breaking the momentum of the 2019 border wave.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) Told On Wednesday, he toured the temporary court facilities the Biden administration has set up for MPP hearings in Brownsville and found them “empty.”
“Federal taxpayers are paying millions of dollars for a decorative item so the Biden administration can tell the courts that we are implementing the MPP but we are not actually doing it,” Lankford said.
A twist of Biden’s MPP reboot is that it has opened a faster route to US asylum for some migrants at a time when most other routes remain closed by the Title 42 pandemic deportations.
Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and Cubans who have been the vast majority of MPP enrollees under Biden tend to have stronger claims for asylum or some form of humanitarian protection as the United States denounces their governments as repressive and authoritarian.
“The MPP gave me a chance,” said Boris, a Nicaraguan asylum seeker who spoke on the condition that his last name be withheld as he still fears possible deportation.
Boris, 29, crossed the border from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso in early December and was among the first group of migrants to be placed in MPP under Biden. Boris said he faces persecution in his home country for protesting against the government of President Daniel Ortega, who was sworn in for a fourth term last year in an election under the Biden administration . denounced as “a fraud”.
Boris returned from Mexico to El Paso immigration court in early January, describing his fear of persecution with the help of an interpreter. He also told the court that he suffered from a chronic lung condition that would put his life at risk if returned to Mexican shelters.
The judge exempted him from the MPP and he was released into a church-run shelter along with dozens of others who he said had contracted the coronavirus. Five days later, he joined his cousins at their Austin-area apartment and is awaiting another court date next week.
“They gave me my papers and fired me,” Boris said. “I don’t know why or how. Now I’m here, safe and happy to be here, hoping I won’t be kicked out.
Returned to Ciudad Juarez
Under Trump, asylum seekers sent to Mexico were often confused and adrift, unsure how to find legal help or return for their US court appointments. They were visible on the streets of Mexican border towns and were easy targets for criminal gangs.
Marysol Castro, an attorney for Diocesan Services for Migrants and Refugees of El Paso, which provides legal aid to MPP asylum seekers, said the program’s return under Biden was a “relief” for some, “because otherwise, if you go to the border, you get expelled” from title 42.
Castro said new MPP enrollees have hearing dates with expedited hearings, unlike asylum seekers who were placed in the program under Trump and are still stuck in Mexico “hopelessly.”
Mexican authorities say they have received assurances from the Biden administration that migrants placed in MPP would have better access to a lawyer. But despite the vastly lower numbers, there’s still far more demand for pro bono legal services than nonprofit groups and charities can provide, Castro said.
More than two-thirds of MPP returns under Biden have been sent to Ciudad Juárez, where they receive secure transportation under a State Department contract with the United Nations International Organization for Migration. The Mexican government is housing them in a shelter set up in a converted warehouse in an industrial area of the city.
“The shelters are more restrictive,” said Victor Hugo Lopez, a Mexican official who helps oversee the program. “Migrants can ask for permits to go out, but we try to protect them by keeping them inside.”
Dana Graber Ladek, IOM’s chief of mission in Mexico, said her organization continues to oppose the MPP on principle, even as it works with both governments to improve conditions for returnees.
“It still has a huge negative impact,” she said. “That’s not how the asylum is supposed to work.”
Hernández reported from San Antonio.