The Biden administration said it will begin allowing asylum-seekers stuck waiting in Mexico under a Trump-era program into the United States, embarking on a difficult effort to locate and transport thousands of migrants during a global pandemic.
Beginning Feb. 19, the Department of Homeland Security will start to allow asylum-seekers who have been trapped for months or longer in dangerous northern Mexico border towns to proceed with their immigration cases from within the U.S., administration officials told reporters late Thursday.
Individuals will not be held in immigration detention facilities after they have been processed and brought to the U.S. Instead, they will be placed in “alternatives to detention programs” and allowed to proceed with their immigration cases from elsewhere in the country, the officials said.
"This latest action is another step in our commitment to reform immigration policies that do not align with our nation’s values," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
Roughly 25,000 migrants have active cases under the Trump administration’s "Remain in Mexico" policy, formally known Migrant Protection Protocols program. The policy requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases wind their way in U.S. immigration court. All MPP cases were suspended indefinitely last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, leaving thousands in limbo.
The effort will initially be limited to three ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, but officials declined to specify which ones to help prevent migrants from “acting on limited information and rushing to different ports on the border.”
Most people will be processed through two of those ports, which should each soon be able to take in roughly 300 people daily, the officials said.
The newly announced plans come less than two weeks after President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling on DHS to “promptly begin taking steps to reinstate the safe and orderly reception and processing of arriving asylum seekers, consistent with public health and safety and capacity constraints.”
“This is an important part of President Biden’s commitment to restoring humane and orderly processing at the border,” an administration official said on a press call. “That means we need to start asylum proceedings and allow people access to asylum proceedings in the United States, for people who have been too long kept in Mexico and been unable to pursue their cases.”
According to the officials, the new administration has been working with the Mexican government and international organizations to identify and process asylum-seekers with active MPP cases. Work developing the plans began before Inauguration Day, they said.
Officials warned that migrants enrolled in MPP should not come to the ports of entry. Instead, they will be able to register with an international organization online or over the phone, and will be given an appointment date to cross the border.
Migrants in the program will also be tested for COVID-19 before entering the U.S. and provided transportation to the ports, according to officials. Those COVID-19 tests will be administered by international organizations and funded by the U.S. government, they said.
An official added that while individuals in MPP are easiest to identify, the administration hopes to expand the program to include migrants who were originally forced into the program but later deported in absentia.
The officials also stressed that only asylum-seekers who have been waiting for months in the MPP program would be allowed into the country. Migrants who have yet to seek humanitarian protection should not come to the U.S. border.
Biden administration officials have repeatedly stressed this message as they work to roll back the Trump administration’s immigration restrictions in an effort to deter increased levels of migration to the border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a 6 percent increase in arrests at the border between December and January, in data released Wednesday.
The Biden administration has left in place the prior administration’s public health order allowing border agents to rapidly expel asylum-seekers who cross the border without considering their claims for protection, though DHS has said the order will no longer be applied to children traveling alone.
At a press conference Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that “the majority of people who come to the border are turned away.”
“This is why we continue to convey that this is not the time to come. The President is committed to putting in place, in partnership with our Department of Homeland Security, a moral and a humane process for processing people at the border, but that capacity is limited right now,” Psaki said.