Why ‘Remain in Mexico’ Is Worth Preserving
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Less than a year after canceling former President Donald Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy toward migrants attempting to enter the U.S., the Biden administration has started enforcing it again — all too reluctantly. Restoring the policy is a necessary step toward gaining control over the crisis at the country’s southern border. The administration should work with Mexico to make it more efficient and humane.
Under Trump’s policy, officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols (or MPP), migrants who were apprehended at the border were required to stay in Mexico while they waited for their cases to be heard. Between 2019 and 2021, about 70,000 people were returned to the Mexican side of the border. Those whose cases made it to the front of the queue were allowed to enter the U.S. for court hearings, but had to return to Mexico until a final determination was made about their status.
There’s evidence that this policy yielded results. Apprehensions on the southwestern border fell 30% in its first year. The U.S. also appears to have expedited the processing of claims for those in the program. Because of a backlog of 1.3 million immigration cases, migrants in the U.S. can go years before their first court date. By comparison, more than half of all MPP cases were completed by February 2021.
Even so, the program wasn’t without flaws. Critics faulted the administration for failing to provide adequate transportation for migrants to make court hearings; as a result, thousands lost their asylum cases in absentia and were deported. Those waiting in Mexico endured harsh living conditions with little protection from the weather, gangs and human traffickers. According to Human Rights First, there were at least 1,550 documented cases of violence against people enrolled in MPP, including murder, rape and kidnapping.
President Joe Biden instructed federal immigration agencies to stop enrolling migrants into MPP and allow those in Mexico to wait in the U.S. while their cases were processed. In August, a federal judge found that the administration had improperly rescinded the policy and ordered it reinstated, a ruling upheld by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported the highest-ever number of migrant encounters this year. After Biden’s meeting with Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador in November, the administration announced plans to restart MPP. The White House insists, however, that it is not doing so “eagerly.” Last week, the administration asked the Supreme Court to revisit its earlier ruling and allow the administration to rescind the policy.
That would be misguided. Rather than send mixed messages about its commitment to MPP, the administration should focus on making it more effective. It should expand coordination with the Mexican government to provide temporary housing and bolster security for those sent back across the border. It should provide additional incentives for Mexico to allow migrants to work, open bank accounts and access health care while they wait for their hearings. Limiting the distance asylum seekers have to travel for court appearances would bolster their chances of receiving a fair hearing. The administration should also increase the number of immigration judges assigned to the border and provide courts with the resources necessary to meet the government’s goal of resolving MPP claims within 180 days.
Biden’s rush to undo any immigration policies associated with his predecessor has contributed to upheaval at the border and encouraged more people to risk their lives trying to reach the U.S. In the process, it has undermined public support for the comprehensive immigration reforms the country needs. Strengthening MPP, rather than discarding it, is the best way to restore confidence in the government’s ability to administer a more fair and orderly system.
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