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Biden Is Planning To Bring Back Immigrants Who Were Forced To Wait In Dangerous Mexican Border Towns

The Biden administration’s plan will start slowly at three ports of entry and target those who were forced into Trump's controversial "Remain in Mexico" program.

Posted on February 11, 2021, at 3:09 p.m. ET

Michael Nigro / Sipa USA via AP

In December, nearly 2,500 asylum-seekers were living at El Barretal, a defunct outdoor nightclub approximately 10 miles south of the US border.

Immigrants who were forced by former president Donald Trump to wait in dangerous conditions in Mexico while they tried to gain asylum will soon start being allowed to enter the US at certain ports as the Biden administration attempts to wind down the controversial policy, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.

The unprecedented effort, which is expected to be rolled out within the next two weeks, is the beginning of President Joe Biden’s promise to end the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy — formally known as the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP). The policy led to tens of thousands of asylum-seekers being forced to stay in Mexico as they waited for their day in a US court. Often left with nowhere to go but squalid camps in Mexican border towns, human rights advocates reported cases of the immigrants being kidnapped, raped, and tortured.

Eric Gay / AP

An immigrant walks through a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, in 2019.

The Biden administration’s plan, which will start slowly at three ports of entry, targets those who were pushed into the Remain in Mexico program and still have active cases in US immigration courts, according to a draft of the plan obtained by BuzzFeed News. Those who qualify after registering online should not come to the border, but instead wait for instructions to start the entry process, a source with knowledge of the plan said.

As they prepare to enter the US, the immigrants will be kept in so-called staging areas in Mexico, where they will receive a medical screening and a COVID-19 test. Those who test positive for the disease will be forced to continue waiting in Mexico until they test negative.

US Customs and Border Protection officials will also assess the capacity to intake those allowed into the US on a daily basis. Officials believe they can process up to 300 people a day within the first few weeks at two of the ports of entry for the initial phase.

“This is an effort that has been months in the planning. I think it absolutely shows that the administration was serious about this commitment,” the source said.

The initial effort will prioritize people based on when their cases were open, but there will be some opportunities for those who are particularly vulnerable to be fast-tracked, the source added. The US government estimates that 25,000 people in the Remain in Mexico program are still awaiting their court hearings.

Department of Homeland Security officials will not allow in people whose US asylum cases were terminated or who already have deportation orders. People who do not follow the reentry plan will also be turned back, in some cases using a public health law that allows for US border officials to quickly turn back immigrants at the border. This week, the White House also warned that most immigrants will still be turned away at the border.

The Trump administration implemented the controversial program in early 2019 amid a surge of families crossing the border and claiming asylum. In the early days of the policy, which was one in a line of others seeking to restrict asylum at the border, the administration was seeing upward of 100,000 border crossings a month.

Eric Gay / AP

Children play at a camp of asylum-seekers stuck in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, in 2020.

The new plan calls for the asylum-seekers to be allowed into the US without being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unless they have a serious criminal record or are unaccompanied children, who will be sent to Health and Human Services officials.

Once in the US, the immigrants will be taken to local shelters and be required to check in with ICE officials as part of an “alternative to detention” in which they could also be forced to wear ankle bracelets for remote monitoring as they go through their court proceedings, the draft plan says.

In late 2019, BuzzFeed News obtained a draft report from a team of senior DHS officials who examined the Remain in Mexico policy and found that border officials apparently pressured US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officials to deny entry to immigrants. The “Red Team” recommendations call on agencies within DHS, including Customs and Border Protection, to provide immigration court hearing notices in multiple languages, improve language access, and ensure that immigrants understand the “questions asked and can make informed decisions.”

They also recommended that procedures for screening vulnerable populations, like children and people with disabilities, be standardized, and that the role of CBP officers in the process is clarified.

Immigrant advocates and experts often criticized the lack of opportunity that immigrants enrolled in the Remain in Mexico program had to actually win their cases. According to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, just over 600 of the more than 70,000 people who were pushed into the program were granted some form of relief. The vast majority of people in the court system were not represented by attorneys and were issued deportation orders.

The program also ran into practical issues, such as a period of time in which, according to attorneys, US officials were going out of their way to keep those who had been granted asylum out of the country by issuing fake court date notices.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.