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Remain in Mexico program for migrants: what is it and who wants to eliminate it?

The “Remain in Mexico” program put in place by Trump has been called “inhumane” by critics, courts have blocked attempts by Biden to end it.

The “Remain in Mexico” program put in place by Trump has been called “inhumane” by critics, courts have blocked attempts by Biden to end it.
Mario TamaGetty Images

The “Remain in Mexico” program was put in place in January 2019 by former President Trump to stem the flow of migrants into the US across its southern border. This has created a legal limbo for millions of migrants seeking asylum in the US and a backlog of immigration cases waiting to be heard.

President Biden pledged to put an end to the program but his attempts to do so have been stymied by the courts. The Supreme Court has agreed to take up the issue this term upon an appeal from the White House. To deal with the backlog of applications to seek entry into the US, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would expedite cases.

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Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico”

American immigration policy has been in need of reform for years, but failure by Congress to make any concrete advances through legislation have left it up to presidents to create policy ad hoc. The problem has plagued administrations one after another as they try to control the flow of migrants coming into the US through informal channels.

Amid a sharp increase in undocumented migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, President Trump created the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program in January 2019. The program requires asylum seekers and other undocumented migrants that enter the US be sent back to Mexico while US immigration courts process their case.

The new rules applied to single adult men and women, as well as family units that attempted to cross the border. Previously, under US law, asylum seekers are granted the right to remain in the country while their petition is pending.

The covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation when the border was closed to all non-essential traffic and hearings stopped all together for MPP cases. More than 71,000 asylum seekers were deported to Mexico between the start of the program and January 2021 when President Biden put a temporary halt to it.

President Biden has pledged to end the “Remain in Mexico” program

Biden ordered that his administration review immigration policy when he suspended the program, fulfilling a campaign pledge. Many deportations were stopped, and no more applications were accepted under MPP. Due to the inability to ensure the safety of migrants in Mexico who were living in homeless-like settlements south of the border and prone to attacks from criminal gangs, Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security terminated the program in June 2021.

Texas and Missouri challenged the decision in a district court in Texas. The federal judge in that case ruled that the Biden administration must continue to implement the Remain in Mexico program. The Supreme Court denied an injunction on restarting the program, but in February said that it would hear the White House’s appeal which will happen in April.

In December 2021, the Remain in Mexico policy was reinstated after Biden reached an agreement with Mexico over proposed changes. The US would from then on provide access to medical care and legal aid while expanding the list of vulnerable populations exempt from the program.

US seeks to expedite pending immigration court cases

In the agreement with Mexico the Biden administration also pledged to resolve immigration cases in six months or less. As of February 2022, the number of migrants awaiting a hearing in an immigration court has doubled from what it was prior to the implementation of MMP to 1.6 million. According to Migration Information Source there are around 9.5 million applications with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The administration has announced new rules to streamline the process to clear the backlog in the immigration courts. Under the new policy, asylum officers instead of immigration judges will evaluate asylum claims for some migrants seeking protection. However, immigration advocates are raising concerns that the move may deny them due process.

“Remain in Mexico” program rebuked

Critics of the program say that Remain in Mexico is “inhumane” and that it violates US and international law. The White House reinstating the policy was condemned by pro-immigration groups and Democratic lawmakers.

Speaking to The Hill, Democratic Representative Veronica Escobar from Texas said “Return to Mexico is a policy that absolutely erodes our values as a country and it's, in my view, a violation of asylum processing.” Policy director at the American Immigration Council Jorge Loweree said in statement “The Remain in Mexico program eliminated due process for 70,000 people and forced vulnerable families to run a gauntlet of kidnappers and extortionists just to get to the courtroom door.”

The policy has also drawn condemnation from the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations refugee agency, which has refused to help implement the policy. Likewise, many nonprofits that were providing legal assistance to migrants have told the White House that they will not be complicit in an immoral policy now that it has been reactivated.

“Many at this point have real concerns that signing up to officially take part in a program that they believe violates US and international law puts them in a position of potentially being complicit with human rights abuses,” Eleanor Acer, senior director for Refugee Protection at Human Rights First. “And I would say massive human rights abuses.”