DHS Plans to Expand ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program for Central American Asylum Seekers
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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
In late January 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) upended the existing process for requesting asylum in the U.S. by rolling out the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings instead of in the U.S. – resulting in overwhelmed and overcrowded migrant camps, particularly in Tijuana. The program, commonly also referred to as “Remain in Mexico,” is also active at the Calexico port of entry, and DHS plans to expand the program even farther along the border.
MPP: ‘Safer And More Orderly Process’
According to DHS, “The Migrant Protection Protocols are a U.S. Government action whereby certain foreign individuals entering or seeking admission to the U.S. from Mexico – illegally or without proper documentation – may be returned to Mexico and wait outside of the U.S. for the duration of their immigration proceedings, where Mexico will provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay.”
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DHS also stated, “The MPP will provide a safer and more orderly process that will discourage individuals from attempting illegal entry and making false claims to stay in the U.S., and allow more resources to be dedicated to individuals who legitimately qualify for asylum.”
Contiguous Territory Provision
Many immigration advocates question the legality of “Remain in Mexico.” It relies on a rarely used provision in immigration law, which allows the U.S. to return certain people who enter from a “contiguous territory” to be returned to that contiguous territory until their claim for legal status is either accepted or denied. According to Vox.com, whether asylum seekers are covered by the “contiguous territory” provision is at the heart of the lawsuit against the policy. Currently, the policy applies only to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and isn’t being used for children trying to enter the U.S. without an adult.
Trump Expects Exponential Growth in Returned Immigrants
Two hundred and forty asylum seekers were sent to Mexico under “Remain in Mexico.” However, the Trump administration expects the number of immigrants sent back to Mexico to await their asylum hearings to “grow exponentially” in the next few weeks as it expands the program to additional cities along the southern border. Officials didn’t say which other border towns “Remain in Mexico” would be expanded to, but said “everything is on the table; there isn’t any location we’ve deemed non-operational.”
No Agreement on Migrant Protection Protocols
Despite the international nature of this program, a DHS official told CNN, “There is no agreement between the United States and Mexico on the Migrant Protection Protocols.” However, the Mexican government is cooperating, and for now is providing temporary shelters and even work permits for migrants who have chosen to stay in Mexico.
CBP Metering Process
The new process makes the asylum process more difficult for Central American migrants, largely because they don’t have easy access to immigration attorneys in Mexico like they would if released in the U.S. to wait for their immigration hearings. In places like San Ysidro, Customs and Border Protection has enacted a “metering” process, which limits the number of migrants it will interview for a credible fear determination per day. As such, migrants still waiting to just apply for asylum are mixed in at refugee camps with those waiting for their hearings.
No Legal Challenges – Yet
Currently, there are no major legal challenges to the Migration Protection Protocols, most likely because it’s an unprecedented policy implemented under a little-known legal provision. Additionally, it’s not clear if that legal provision even applies to asylum seekers. There is also the complication of Mexico’s unratified status as a “safe third country” and “contiguous territory” where asylum seekers can legally be sent, combined with a general lack of transparency and information about the Protocols.