On Friday, the Biden administration announced in a memo that it would be ending the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy. Ironically named the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), the program forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their cases to be heard.
“In reaching this conclusion, I recognize that MPP likely contributed to reduced migratory flows,” DHS Secretary Mayorkas declared in his memo. “But it did so by imposing substantial and unjustifiable human costs on the individuals who were exposed to harm while waiting in Mexico.”
This presents a new and powerful shift in the administration’s discourse around immigration: an admission that deterrence-based immigration policies are, by nature, unjustifiably cruel (although what they haven’t admitted yet is that deterrence doesn’t work).
During his presidential campaign, Biden promised to end MPP. He did halt it temporarily, but was ordered to reinstate the program after a district court ruled that Biden had terminated it improperly. The administration appealed the ruling, but the Supreme Court upheld it.
As of now, the court’s injunction ordering the re-implementation of MPP still stands, meaning that the administration may still be moving forward with the program in mid-November until the injunction is lifted.
But, as legal experts have pointed out, the administration had two months to terminate the program in compliance with the court order, which simply prohibits the “en masse” release of all asylum seekers at the border into the U.S.
That the administration may be needlessly drawing out a cruel and unjust program is a choice. Already, Biden officials have signed over $14 million in contracts to reopen "tent courts" at border crossings in Laredo and Brownsville, Texas. Biden officials claimed to be undertaking efforts to make the program more humane, such as potentially moving to offer vaccines to asylum-seekers. But as Mayorkas himself admitted, the program is inherently inhumane.
More than 70,000 immigrants are estimated to have been placed into MPP before the administration ended the policy. During that time, there were over 1,544 cases of violent attacks—including murder, assault, torture, and kidnapping—reported against migrants in the program. That asylum seekers were subjected to the very dangers from which they were fleeing is not only unconscionable, but should be a violation of international law.
There were also significant abuses on the U.S.’s part. A leaked document from DHS revealed that border officials did not comply with their agency’s own guidelines on who could and couldn’t be placed into MPP. Despite the fact that migrants with medical conditions were supposed to be exempt from the program, that often wasn’t the case in the practice. There are reports of severely disabled children and adults in need of surgery or medical attention being forced to wait in Mexico.
Conditions under "Remain in Mexico" were not just dangerous for migrants in the program, but for their legal representatives as well, who were threatened with kidnapping and violence for aiding asylum-seekers.
Last week, over seventy legal service providers, such as Al Otro Lado and Human Rights First, issued a letter to the administration refusing to cooperate with the implementation of MPP.
“There is no way to make this program safe, humane, or lawful,” they wrote. “No measure of involvement from civil societies will mitigate the harms of this horrific, racist, and unlawful program.”
In his memo, Mayorkas echoed this sentiment: “I have concluded that there are inherent problems with the program that no amount of resources can sufficiently fix.”
Last Saturday, immigration advocates walked out of a virtual meeting with Biden officials in protest of the continuation of Trump-era policies. "There is no improved version of MPP. It is not possible to make the inhumane humane," they read from a prepared statement. "We refuse to be complicit in deterrence-based border policies.”
And on Monday, Bishop Seitz of El Paso called on the administration to end MPP, saying:
"Remain in Mexico, like Title 42, causes needless suffering for those forced to flee who have come to our doorstep in need of protection. It is time to heal, to restore our commitment to asylum, and in the words of the Holy Father, move ‘towards an ever wider we.'”
In order to kickstart the program, Biden will need permission from the Mexican government. Whether they will grant it remains to be seen.
While it’s impossible to know why the administration chooses to do anything, it’s possible that this decision came after significant pressure from immigration advocates. Perhaps the silver lining to all of this is that pressure does work.
What we must demand now is for the administration to do everything in its power to make sure that the courts lift the order to re-implement MPP in “good faith”, to which Friday's memo makes an excellent case is impossible.
It is also past time for Biden to revoke Title 42. If MPP had “unjustifiable human costs,” then what about the 7,647 kidnappings and other attacks on migrants who were expelled under Title 42 since Biden took office? The Biden administration must follow through on its promise for concrete immigration reform, and make an effort towards building a more humane asylum system.