McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Migrant advocates in South Texas were scrambling Thursday to make plans to help asylum-seekers that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Mexican officials announced will be sent south of the border and forced to remain in Mexico starting next week.
In a DHS memo sent Thursday to various law enforcement agencies and obtained by Border Report, the Biden administration announced that it has made several changes to the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program that was started under the Trump administration. This includes ensuring that extremely vulnerable migrant populations not be enrolled in MPP, quicker court hearings for the migrants, safer living conditions for the migrants forced to remain in Mexico during their U.S. asylum proceedings, plus measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 such as vaccinations.
Thursday’s memo by Robert Silvers, undersecretary for the Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans, stated that the government on Mexico has accepted the U.S. terms.
U.S. officials for weeks have stressed that the reimplementation of this program cannot happen without Mexico’s cooperation and agreement.
The memo also strongly notes that the Biden administration is being forced to restart the program due to a federal court order that the U.S. Supreme Court failed to block in August. The agency pledges to reimplement MPP “in good faith” but also promised to terminate the program “as soon as practicable” via the courts.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard on Thursday echoed that migrants could begin being sent back from the United States next week.
“The Government of Mexico has decided that, for humanitarian reasons and temporarily, certain migrants who have an appointment to appear before an immigration judge in the United States to request asylum in that country will not be returned to their countries of origin,” the foreign minister’s office said in a statement.
Individual MPP court hearings are to be held in San Diego, El Paso, and in tent cities recently built in the South Texas cities of Laredo and Brownsville.
According to the memo, DHS officials plan to begin sending back migrants from U.S. ports of entry in San Diego and Calexico in California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo and Brownsville.
In addition, “some individuals” who are processed in Eagle Pass, Laredo and Brownsville “may be moved to the interior of Mexico to await their hearings,” the memo states.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who has been in talks with U.S. officials and Mexican leaders, told Border Report that the number of migrants to be placed in MPP is to remain low, less than 50 per day per port of entry.
And she says she hopes that will prevent camps on the border from forming, like one in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, where upwards of 4,000 asylum seekers lived after being returned to Mexico.
“The terrible conditions we saw there the families and what we had to endure and so I was so grateful that this new administration lifted that and stopped it. I certainly hope that we don’t see again what we saw before the conditions that families found themselves in Mexico waiting,” she told Border Report on Thursday from her offices in San Juan, Texas.
After Thursday’s announcement, migrant advocates in South Texas were scrambling for more information and context and a meeting among non-governmental organizations was set up for Thursday evening to shore up proposals to Mexican officials to try to aid the asylum-seekers, said Andrea Rudnik, a volunteer coordinator with the nonprofit Team Brownsville.
“We are trying to formulate a tentative plan. Best ways to go forward or most humane or best for asylum seekers,” Rudnik said.
Unfortunately, she said, when NGOs from South Texas in 2019 and 2020 tried to propose to Mexican officials ways to better accommodate migrants forced to remain south of the border and to help lessen hardships they encountered as thousands lived in a squalid migrant camp in Matamoros, she said their ideas were disregarded.
For example, she said, nonprofits had offered to purchase $500,000 worth of from IKEA plastic portable buildings that were waterproof and sturdier than flimsy plastic tents under which the thousands of migrants lived. Instead, she said, officials in Matamoros put a plastic tarp over a wood base for the tents, but the tarp often leaked as the migrants lived there month after month, some up to two years.
Now Rudnik says she fears they have run out of time and migrants will begin streaming back over the border in the upcoming days.
A court document filed by the Biden administration in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Amarillo on Thursday — regarding the lawsuit filed by the states of Texas and Missouri that has prompted the reimplementation of MPP — stated “new enrollments in MPP can now begin.”
“It feels very close,” Rudnik said. “It feels different. It feels like they’re just releasing information to the general public and we’re getting information from CBS News and CNN and we’re not getting information directly. We actually were having a meeting with DHS directly this morning and it was canceled.”
“Many of us may not be happy or agree with the fact that remain in Mexico policy is going back into place. It’s wrong. It’s not something that should happen and yet we must work toward helping the families and the way to help the families is to work together and to be there for them. And so I hope we can do that everybody especially the Mexican government and the U.S. government,” Pimentel said.
Migrant advocates mostly fear for the safety of asylum-seekers, many of whom report being kidnapped, extorted, raped and even killed as they wait in northern Mexican border towns.
Currently, 2,500 asylum-seekers are living in Reynosa, Mexico, 50 miles west of Matamoros, in a city known for multiple murders.
In Tijuana, Mexico, south of San Diego, up to 1,000 migrants had lived in a border camp that officials recently began dismantling.
The DHS memo stated that this go-round of MPP promises that, “no individual who demonstrates a reasonable possibility of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion or a reasonable possibility of torture in Mexico will be involuntarily returned to Mexico.”
DHS officials say they are working with Mexican officials to ensure that migrants also will have access to shelters in Mexico and secure transportation to and from ports of entry.
There will be “ongoing discussions with stakeholders, the workforce, and the GOM (government of Mexico) to ensure appropriate oversight and accountability,” the memo says.
Other regulations for restarting MPP agreed by both countries include:
- Migrants put in MPP will be granted temporary legal status in Mexico and allowed to work “and access services.”
- Families will not be separated during removal proceedings.
- Unaccompanied migrant children will not be put in MPP.
- Noncitizens “with particular vulnerabilities” like physical or mental impairments, advanced age and LGBTQ will not be put in MPP.
- Eligible migrants will be provided coronavirus vaccinations.
- Migrants will have 24 hours to get legal advice.
- All will be given “legal resource packets” informing them of their rights and locations for telephonic or video communications with counsel from Mexico.
- Migrants will be issued a Notice To Appear document with court date information.
- Cases are to be completed within 180 days or six months.
But what will happen to those waiting in other areas, like Reynosa, is yet to be seen. And on Thursday, social media were full of comments regarding the dangers of the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where Matamoros is located. The U.S. State Department warns Americans not to travel to Tamaulipas “due to crime and kidnapping.”
“MPP is inhumane. It is among the most harmful immigration policies imposed by the US in recent years, punishing those fleeing violence and persecution and denying protection to vulnerable people. We are witnessing yet another blow to the battered US asylum system,” Avril Benoît, executive director of Doctors Without Borders said in a statement Thursday.
“By adding new nationalities to this policy, applying remain-in-Mexico border-wide, and limiting access to counsel to a mere 24-hours before individuals and entire families are returned to Mexico, the administration is going far beyond a good-faith implementation of the court’s order. One hundred and eighty days in Mexico is too long for a vulnerable asylum seeker to be subjected to this dangerous policy,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey. “We have a moral obligation to do everything possible to swiftly and permanently discard this policy.”
Some Republicans welcomed the return of MPP.
“This was triggered by the successful lawsuit by Texas against Biden to reinstate the remain in Mexico policy,” tweeted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-New Mexico, whose district covers the entire Mexico-New Mexico border, also took to Twitter.
“GOOD,” she tweeted. “Remain in Mexico is back, after the Biden administration howled like a Pug getting its nails clipped at doing the bare minimum to protect our borders. Title 42 is still in place as well, although enforcement is lax. We keep fighting.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.