WASHINGTON – The Biden administration said Thursday Mexico has agreed to cooperate on restarting the Migrant Protection Protocols policy as long as the U.S. takes key steps to address Mexico's human rights concerns with the controversial, Trump-era program.
The Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the "Remain in Mexico" program, forces asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while they await U.S. immigration proceedings. Though the Biden administration is seeking to end the policy, it was forced to restart the program to comply with a court order.
In El Paso, local leaders and advocates reacted to the news with disappointment.
“We're going to denounce the situation again,” said Fernando Garcia, director for the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. “We're going to continue calling for the repeal of this program, and we're going to continue making this administration accountable and responsible to the situation of refugees and asylum seekers.”
The Department of Homeland Security said it would make humanitarian changes to the program before it is re-implemented, including providing COVID-19 vaccinations for migrants, committing to concluding proceedings within six months of an individual's return to Mexico, and expanding the categories for potential exemption from the program to include particularly vulnerable people like those with physical and mental health challenges.
Migrants will also have access to communicate with counsel before and during immigration court proceedings, according to a DHS statement.
But the revised program will expand eligibility for return to nationals "of any country in the Western Hemisphere other than Mexico."
And the Biden administration will continue to enforce the Trump-era public health order known as "Title 42," which allows border agents to expel asylum-seekers to Mexico without due process to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Garcia said he doesn’t believe that this policy can be fixed. He said if the Biden administration wants to help migrants and refugees, then he should begin by investing heavily in “welcoming infrastructure” which would provide more protection and legal services.
“At the end of the day, the issue of immigration is not fixed by the expulsion of immigrants. I think we need to fix the system,” Garcia said. “We need to have immigration reform and we need to have a better border.”
Mexico confirmed the deal in a statement.
"The government of Mexico has decided that, due to humanitarian reasons and in a temporary manner, it will not return to their countries of origin certain migrants who have an appointment before an immigration judge in the United States to seek asylum in that country," the statement read.
The program is expected to begin Monday, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss details of the announcement.
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Individuals in MPP will enter the U.S. to attend court hearings through one of four ports of entry: San Diego or the Texas cities of Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso.
President Joe Biden suspended the policy, which was created in 2018 under the Trump administration, shortly after taking office in January and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas terminated the policy in June.
But the administration was forced to restart the program after a federal judge ruled Mayorkas "failed to show a reasoned decision" for ending the program.
The U.S. Supreme Court in August denied a request by the administration to stay a lower court order requiring it to restart the policy – essentially forcing the administration to resume the policy. The Supreme Court ruling did not address the policy’s legality.
Veronica Escobar tweets response
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said on Twitter she spoke with Mayorkas Thursday morning about DHS’s new changes.
“Despite these changes, Remain in Mexico still doesn’t represent our American values and the Biden administration must work aggressively to permanently end it,” Escobar said in her Twitter statement.
The El Paso Times was referred to Escobar’s Twitter statement for comment by Escobar’s spokesperson and further questions have not been answered.
Despite these changes, Remain in Mexico still doesn’t represent our American values and the Biden administration must work aggressively to permanently end it.
— Rep. Veronica Escobar (@RepEscobar) December 2, 2021
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he was "deeply concerned" the Biden administration is "overseeing an expansion of this inhumane policy and implementing the court's order before critical safeguards are in place."
Advocates swiftly criticized the announcement and dismissed the administration's attempts at improving the program.
"We were in the trenches documenting the direct impacts on affected people," said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso. "We know from that experience there really is no way to reimplement this program in a humane fashion. And the Biden administration knows that too."
The organization will monitor the rollout in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez and provide resources to ensure migrant shelters in Juárez can adequately receive people placed in MPP proceedings. Corbett said they will document whether impacted people are able to present "robust" asylum claims or if expedited court proceedings will hurt their chances.
Corbett said while the Biden administration is working in the courts to end MPP, it is also trying to expand the program to include Haitians.
"At the end of the day, the buck stops with the president," he said. "This is also the result of the failure of the president to marshal from the beginning of his term a robust vision for what protection at the border could look like for vulnerable people."
Bishop Mark J. Seitz tweeted Thursday afternoon, "The border should be known as a place of welcome, security and respect for the rights of people on the move. Policies like #remaininmexico , #MPP and # Title42 do not reflect the evangelical values of hospitality and love thy neighbor. #FratelliTutti"
La frontera debería ser conocida como lugar de acogida, seguridad y respeto por los derechos de las personas en movimiento. Políticas como #remaininmexico, #MPP y # Title42 no reflejan los valores evangélicos de la hospitalidad y el amor al prójimo. #FratelliTutti
— Bishop Mark J. Seitz (@BishopSeitz) December 2, 2021
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Remain in Mexico returns, Biden administration criticized by El Paso