Border groups on Saturday "walked out" of a virtual meeting with the Biden administration over its upcoming plans to restart a Trump-era program that forced thousands of immigrants and asylum-seekers to wait in dangerous Mexican border cities, according to leaked video obtained by BuzzFeed News.
In a Thursday-night court filing, the Biden administration said it was prepared to restart the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) in mid-November. The relaunch of the policy is still contingent on Mexico's agreeing to take immigrants sent back under MPP, which the Mexican government has so far not agreed to.
Before leaving Saturday's meeting, NGOs that work with immigrants along the border said they could no longer have conversations in good conscience with the Biden administration because it has continued to preserve policies enacted by Donald Trump's White House.
Under the Trump administration, more than 71,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers were forced to wait in Mexico while US judges adjudicated their cases under MPP, also known as Remain in Mexico.
"There is no improved version of MPP. It is not possible to make the inhumane humane, the unfair fair, or to breathe life into a deadly program," said the immigrant advocacy groups in a prepared statement they took turns reading. "We refuse to be complicit in deterrence-based border policies ... We cannot allow our efforts to help the victims of these policies to be used in any way to prolong them."
It's unclear which advocacy groups attended the online meeting, but a sign calling for the end of MPP that was held up by an attendee displayed the name of the Sidewalk School, an organization that helps immigrants and asylum-seekers on the Mexican side of the border opposite South Texas.
Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden made good on a campaign-trail promise to end MPP, and his administration began allowing immigrants in the program to enter the US. Immigrants and asylum-seekers had been waiting for months — sometimes years — in some of the most dangerous border cities, where they were frequently targeted by cartels and the Mexican authorities meant to protect them.
The Republican-led states of Texas and Missouri filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration for stopping MPP. In August, US District Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk sided with the states and ordered the government to reinstate the program. The Biden administration appealed and asked the Supreme Court to stay the order but was unsuccessful.
On the call Saturday morning were representatives from the Department of Homeland Security as well as Esther Olavarria, deputy director for immigration at the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. Olavarria said the court injunction forcing them to reimplement Remain in Mexico was expected to be in place for "a while."
"We have to proceed in good faith or be held in contempt of court, and as a government, we cannot do that," Olavarria said in the leaked video. "We understand all of the problems and all of the challenges and have learned in conversations with all of you how bad it was."
The challenge the Biden administration faces is restarting MPP in the best way possible, Olavarria said.
"I know that that is a contradiction in many of your eyes, but this is what we're forced to do," Olavarria said.
From February 2019 to February 2021, Human Rights First counted at least 1,544 public reports of murder, rape, and other attacks committed against people in MPP.
On a call with reporters Thursday, an administration official said they were in the process of preparing a new memo to formally terminate MPP. However, the memo can't go into effect until the injunction in the federal cases is lifted, the official said. Olavarria said the memo would be issued "soon."
At the start of the pandemic, the Trump administration stopped using MPP as often in favor of an obscure public health law, known as Title 42, which has allowed the US to quickly expel immigrants at the border, blocking them from accessing the asylum system.
Frustrating immigrant advocates, the Biden administration has continued to use Title 42 to expel thousands. On a call with reporters, an administration official said they plan to continue using Title 42 on immigrants who are "amenable" to it in order to quickly send them back to Mexico or their countries.
Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney who has spent years working with immigrants in Ciudad Juárez and who attended Saturday's meeting, said MPP and Title 42 were simple pretexts for making the lives of asylum-seekers miserable and blocking them from accessing their legal rights.
"The administration has blood on their hands if they go forward with implementing MPP and already has blood on their hands for their horrific adherence to Title 42," Taylor told BuzzFeed News. "The administration is being just disingenuous by claiming that their hands are tied and that they have to restart the program, when they can easily enter a new recession memo or pursue other possible forms of relief."
Immigrant advocates at the Saturday meeting with the Biden administration, said they would no longer engage with the Biden administration on MPP until it does everything in its power to end the program and issue a new termination memo.
"We will not engage with the administration around conversations on how to make MPP a palatable form of inhumanity," the advocates said. "Representing all five border welcoming regions and the suffering migrants who should be at this table, we now ask all our partners and colleagues to stand in solidarity with those we serve by respectfully walking out of this meeting.”