Biden administration weighs “Remain in Mexico Lite,” feeds into Mexico’s southern-border “chain expulsions”
The Biden administration continues to consider how it will revive the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico,” a policy that it bitterly opposes and sought to shut down. As detailed in our August 27 update, the Supreme Court refused to suspend a Texas judge’s order, still under appeal, forcing the Biden administration to make a “good faith effort” to revive the program, which Donald Trump’s administration launched at the end of 2018.
“Remain in Mexico” sent over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum-seekers back into Mexican border towns, penniless, homeless, and vulnerable to crime, to await eventual immigration hearing dates in the United States. Over 1,500 suffered assault, kidnapping, or other abuse, and less than 2 percent of those who were present for all of their hearings were granted asylum. President Joe Biden suspended Remain in Mexico the moment he was sworn in, in January 2021, and officially ended it on June 1.
Now, though, the court is ordering a restart, and on September 15 the administration must provide Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk its first monthly report on the progress of its “good faith efforts.” What those next steps might look like isn’t clear, but reporting is pointing to some sort of limited “Remain in Mexico ‘Lite.’”
Homeland Security Department (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas repeated his opposition to Remain in Mexico in an interview with CBS news, but acknowledged that “We’re planning to implement the program while we litigate the ruling.” CBS revealed that “the department’s policy office has been working on logistical plans to facilitate its ‘expeditious reimplementation,’ including cost estimates, according to an internal memo.” Mexico, too, will have to give at least an informal green light; it is not clear where talks about this currently stand.
“Some Biden officials were already talking about reviving Mr. Trump’s policy in a limited way to deter migration,” unnamed officials told the New York Times. They say the Supreme Court’s ruling gives them a chance to “come up with a more humane version of Mr. Trump’s policy.” A proposal under consideration, three sources told Politico, “would require a small number of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their cases to be processed but give them better living conditions and access to attorneys.”
Asylum advocates reject the idea that a “lite” version of the program can exist.
- “There’s no lite MPP just as there’s no lite police brutality or lite torture,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council.
- “The answer is not to simply find a gentler, kinder MPP 2.0. That completely flies in the face of his [President Biden’s] promise” to end the program, said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of National Immigration Law Center.
- “There’s no way to implement it in a way that will satisfy actual due process or keep people safe, because it’s impossible to keep migrants safe in Mexico,” said Taylor Levy, an attorney who represented many victims of Remain in Mexico.
- “The reinstatement of MPP will place thousands of asylum seekers in harm’s way and deny them the right to a fair hearing of their claims,” said asylum officers’ union leader Michael Knowles.
- “I rejoiced when you declared an end to this immoral policy on your first days in office, and despaired when the Supreme Court required your administration to implement it once again,” reads a letter to President Biden, published in the Washington Post, from Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley’s large migrant respite center in McAllen, Texas. “We must not make children live for months in rain-logged tents. We cannot abandon them to communities where their mothers are afraid to let them use the bathroom at night for fear they might encounter a gang member or be assaulted.”
Instead, advocates are calling on the administration to meet the court’s requirements by “re-terminating” the program. That would mean issuing a memo, as it did when it formally shut down the program in June, addressing Judge Kacsmaryk’s and the Fifth Circuit of Appeals’ concerns that the administration didn’t consider the “benefits” of Remain in Mexico when it decided to close down the program.
A letter from 31 Democratic congressional representatives and senators, led by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), proposes exactly that. “The court orders leave ample room for your administration to ensure MPP never again puts another person in harm’s way,” it explains:
The decisions suggest that the potential perceived problem with your administration’s termination of MPP was that it did not say enough to demonstrate that it had sufficiently weighed the potential consequences of its decision to terminate. The court did not endorse the states’ claims that the government is actually required to return people to Mexico under the immigration statutes. As amicus briefs explained, those claims were egregiously wrong. Thus, we believe your administration can and should re-terminate MPP with a fuller explanation in order to address any perceived procedural defect of the termination.
While the Biden administration continues to deliberate over what to do about a program that sent 71,000 people to Mexico, though, it continues to carry out a program that, to date, has sent people—including asylum seekers—back to Mexico more than a million times since March 2020. “Title 42,” the pandemic policy permitting rapid expulsions of migrants, without regard to asylum or protection needs, remains in place.Mexico continues to receive expulsions of its own citizens and those of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Expelled migrants filling a plaza in Reynosa, Mexico are living in even worse conditions than Remain in Mexico victims who had inhabited an encampment in the nearby, and similarly crime-plagued, city of Matamoros, the Los Angeles Times reported. “There’s less potable water, fewer bathrooms, showers and other sanitation that U.S.-based nonprofits spent months installing in Matamoros. Mexican soldiers circle in trucks with guns mounted on top. Migrants face not only cartel extortion and kidnapping, but also COVID-19 outbreaks and pressure to leave from Mexican authorities.” Reynosa’s critical security situation scares off U.S. volunteers and attorneys. The L.A. Times estimates that 2,000 people are currently inhabiting the plaza. Sister Pimentel’s letter notes, “Recently we estimated that there are close to 5,000 migrants in Reynosa.”
Another encampment with a large number of expelled migrants persists at the other end of the border, right outside the main pedestrian border crossing in Tijuana. There, on September 3, migrants were gathering for vaccinations when word quickly spread—inaccurately—that U.S. authorities had opened the border. Hundreds of people rushed to the line, only to find a phalanx of riot gear-clad CBP officers.
Expulsions don’t just happen at Mexico’s northern border. Since early August, DHS has put expelled Central American migrants, including many families with children, on planes destined for Mexico’s far south: the cities of Villahermosa, Tabasco and Tapachula, Chiapas. Once those planes land, Mexico’s INM has gathered the expelled migrants onto buses and driven them to southern border crossings, instructing them to exit into Guatemala. At no moment do the expelled people have any migratory status in Mexico, much less any opportunity to ask for asylum or protection.
“These expulsions ridicule public health and human rights by crowding people into planes and buses and preventing legal access to asylum in violation of domestic and international law,” reads a report and list of recommendations for the U.S. and Mexican governments produced by several organizations, including WOLA. This document, based on Witness on the Border’s monitoring of deportation and expulsion flights, counted 34 planeloads of migrants to Villahermosa and Tapachula—about one every weekday—between August 5 and August 31.
There is no official count of the number of people who have been subject to these “chain expulsions.” Animal Político, citing Guatemala’s migration authority, reports that 4,243 people were expelled between August 22 and September 6. Many were pushed across the line into the very remote village of El Ceibo, a village of a few hundred people in Guatemala’s sparsely populated frontier department of El Petén, on the edge of the Lacandón jungle a few hours’ drive from Villahermosa.
The 4,243 are not all migrants from the U.S. government’s long-distance expulsion flights. The number includes some migrants whom Mexico’s INM apprehended in southern Mexico. Unnamed official sources tell Animal Político that the number of people expelled by the United States “could be around 3,500”: 2,000 whom Mexico went on to expel in El Ceibo, and 1,500 at the Talismán border crossing near Tapachula.
“While the majority are Central American, the expulsion of Venezuelans, Cubans, and even a Senegalese person was recorded.” One may have been a U.S. citizen, Reuters reports. Animal Político has seen evidence that southern Chiapas municipal police captured Haitian families in mid-August, then handed them over to INM, which expelled them into Guatemala.
“Upon their arrival,” migrants expelled at El Ceibo and Talismán “don’t have a peso or a quetzal in their pockets,” Mexico’s La Jornada puts it. At times, the expulsion buses have dropped people in El Ceibo in the middle of the night. “Mexican immigration authorities have not coordinated these expulsions with the Guatemalan government; nor notified the Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran consulates; nor arranged for onward transport,” reads a briefreport from Human Rights Watch. “Many of those expelled have been forced to sleep on the street upon arrival in El Ceibo.” Some of those expelled, HRW reveals, had pending asylum applications in Mexico.
On September 2, Guatemala’s foreign minister announced an agreement with the U.S. government to send expulsion flights to the airport in Guatemala City instead of to southern Mexico. That agreement, though, will not go into effect until the end of the month—and it of course maintains Title 42’s refusal to consider migrants’ asylum or protection needs.