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Democrats slam DHS for ‘Remain in Mexico’ revival

They say the administration is trying to 'normalize and expand a cruel deterrent policy'

Reps. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., are seen during a July hearing by the Oversight and Reform Committee hearing.
Reps. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., are seen during a July hearing by the Oversight and Reform Committee hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A bicameral group of more than three dozen Democratic lawmakers slammed the Biden administration Monday for its revival and expansion of a Trump-era program requiring migrants to wait in Mexico for asylum decisions.

The Democrats — co-led by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the most senior Latino in the Senate, and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas — acknowledged the Department of Homeland Security had reinstated the so-called Remain in Mexico program, formally known as the Migration Protection Protocols, after being ordered to do so by a Texas federal judge.

However, that court order does not relieve the administration “from an obligation to reduce the human cost of a program,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter, addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and President Joe Biden and obtained by CQ Roll Call.

They said they were “particularly disappointed” the Biden administration included more nationalities in the program than the Trump administration did, including Haitians. The Biden administration also expanded the program to ports of entry where shelters lack sufficient capacity, and gave migrants only 24 hours to consult with an attorney before their initial screenings.

“These choices suggest that your Administration has made a decision to normalize and expand a cruel ‘deterrent’ policy that fails to actually address the root causes of migration and in fact, led to increased migrant recidivism rates. We ask that you immediately revise the announced expansion to the restart of MPP,” they wrote.

The letter was signed by 13 other senators and 22 other House members, including Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. in the Senate and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill., in the House.

The letter comes days after the Biden administration announced it restarted the program, which requires asylum-seeking migrants to wait out their U.S. immigration cases in Mexico, often in small border towns. The program was implemented under the Trump administration and panned by advocates for putting vulnerable asylum-seekers in danger and limiting their access to American lawyers.

As of Monday, 188 migrants had been returned to Mexico, all to Ciudad Juarez, under the revived program, according to a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration.

With the reimplementation, DHS released guidance outlining efforts to ramp up protections for migrants in the program in response to humanitarian concerns raised by the Mexican government. The department pledged to ensure migrants have access to shelters and safe transportation to their U.S. immigration court hearings and provide COVID-19 vaccines and access to counsel.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has also continued to fight the Texas court order mandating the program’s reinstatement, which found the department had not sufficiently explained its rationale behind its formal termination of the border program in June.

The department has also attempted to re-rescind the program by releasing additional memos further explaining the department’s reasoning for doing so.

However, earlier this month, the administration lost their appeal of that court order. U.S. Circuit Judge Andrew S. Oldham, a Trump appointee for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, found DHS “has come nowhere close to shouldering its heavy burden to show that it can make law in a vacuum.”

Menendez and Escobar previously led a bicameral letter in September urging the administration “to take all necessary legal steps to terminate the deadly Remain in Mexico policy,” after the Supreme Court allowed the Texas judge’s order to take effect.

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