Migrants seeking to enter the United States will again have to stay in Mexico as they await immigration hearings, as the Biden administration reluctantly announced plans to comply with a court order and accept conditions set out by Mexico for resuming the Trump-era policy.
Mexico’s foreign relations secretary said Mexico would allow returns, beginning next week, in light of US concessions “for humanitarian reasons and for temporary stays”.
Revival of the Remain In Mexico policy comes under a court order even as the administration manoeuvres to end it in a way that survives legal scrutiny. President Joe Biden scrapped the policy, but a lawsuit by Texas and Missouri has forced him to put it back into effect, subject to Mexico’s acceptance.
About 70,000 asylum-seekers have been subject to the policy, which former president Donald Trump introduced in January 2019 and which Mr Biden suspended on his first day in office.
Illegal border crossings fell sharply after Mexico, facing Mr Trump’s threat of higher tariffs, acquiesced in 2019 to the policy’s rapid expansion.
Asylum-seekers were victims of major violence while waiting in Mexico and faced a slew of legal obstacles, such as access to lawyers and case information.
Migrants are expected to be returned from Monday at one border city and soon after in three others. They are San Diego and Texas crossings in El Paso, Laredo and Brownsville. The sequence has yet to be determined.
The department of homeland security said on Thursday that it was acting to comply with a court order but that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas believed the policy “has endemic flaws, imposed unjustifiable human costs, pulled resources and personnel away from other priority efforts, and failed to address the root causes of irregular migration”.
The dual announcements follow intense bilateral negotiations between the US and Mexico after US district judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee in Amarillo, Texas, ordered that the policy be reinstated, subject to Mexico’s participation.
The policy’s new iteration, outlined for reporters by administration officials, included major additions and changes that Mexico had demanded.
All migrants subject to the policy would be vaccinated against Covid-19. Adults would get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which required only one shot. Children who were eligible under US guidelines would get the Pfizer jab, with second doses when they came to the US for their first hearings.
The US would try to complete cases within 180 days. The justice department was assigning 22 immigration judges to work on these cases exclusively.
US authorities would ask migrants if they feared being returned to Mexico instead of relying on them to raise concerns unprompted. If they expressed fear, they would be screened and have 24 hours to find a lawyer or representative.
The Biden administration was working to ensure migrants’ safety when they travelled to and from court, including within Mexico. Migrants returned from Laredo and Brownsville, where Mexican border cities were especially dangerous, would be moved to locations further inside Mexico.
Migrants from Western Hemisphere countries would be eligible. US officials had not said how many would be processed daily. The administration had kept in place another Trump-era policy that allowed it to return Central Americans to Mexico on grounds of preventing the spread of Covid-19.
Migrants would have an opportunity to meet with lawyers before each hearing. And the state department was working with Mexico on locations for video and phone access to lawyers in the US. These features mirrored many conditions that Mexico had laid out.
It also said that “vulnerable” people should be exempt, including unaccompanied children, pregnant women, physically or mentally ill people, older people, indigenous people and members of the LGBTQ community.
“The Mexican government reaffirms its commitment to migrant rights as well as to safe, orderly, regulated migration,” Mexico’s foreign relations secretary said in a statement confirming that the country accepted the Biden administration’s changes and additions.
Mexico said it was seeking money from the US for shelters and other organisations to substantially increase support for migrants waiting in Mexico.