Political News

Biden administration admits first group of migrants forced to stay in Mexico under Trump-era policy

Posted February 19, 2021 3:35 p.m. EST

— Twenty-five migrants who had been forced to stay in Mexico crossed the US border in San Diego on Friday, the first group to arrive in the country as part of the Biden administration's roll back of a controversial Trump-era policy, according to a source with knowledge of the process.

Under former President Donald Trump, the US forced migrants from Central America and other parts of the world who were seeking asylum at the southern border to stay in Mexico until their immigration court hearings in the US.

More than 70,000 people were subject to the program. Many waited months, if not years, in squalid conditions and under the threat of extortion, sexual assault and kidnapping. The Biden administration estimates some 25,000 migrants still have active cases. That group will be eligible for the first phase of the rollback.

The so-called "remain in Mexico" policy, which went into effect January 2019, was an unprecedented departure from previous protocols, which allowed for the entry of migrants as they went through their immigration hearings in the United States. Reversing it will be a big lift.

On Friday, the Biden administration launched its effort to gradually allow entry to migrants subject to the policy. The process to admit migrants kicked off at the San Ysidro port of entry, located on the California-Mexico border. A limited number of individuals who were registered ahead of time by international organizations came through the port.

"We relied mostly on partners and organizations from civil society that have been working with those families and with those individuals... and had indicated their vulnerability," a United Nations official told reporters Thursday, referring to how the first group of migrants were chosen.

Individuals were required to test for Covid-19 before entering the United States.

Additional ports will begin processing next week, including in Brownsville, Texas, on February 22 and El Paso, Texas, on February 26, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The department will build up capacity over time to allow for the entry of more migrants subject to the policy.

Misinformation and rumors spreading along the border

One of the challenges facing the administration in its rollout is combating rumors. Misinformation has been spreading along the US-Mexico border, through smugglers or word of mouth, among migrants desperate for answers. On Friday, dozens of people showed up to the port on the Mexico side driven in part by rumors, hoping to be allowed into the US.

The United Nations refugee agency is using social media to relay relevant information on the rollback of the policy, urging migrants to stay put and register virtually until told otherwise.

Immigrant advocates have welcomed Biden's commitment to ending the policy and allowing admission of those subject to it, but have implored the administration to move quickly.

"This Trump-era policy has been a humanitarian disaster, depriving thousands of asylum seekers of a meaningful opportunity to obtain asylum, while forcing them to endure perilous conditions in Mexico where they have been targets of kidnapping, rape, and other abuse," said Judy Rabinovitz, American Civil Liberties Union attorney and lead counsel in the case challenging the policy, in a statement.

"The Biden administration's action is a welcome start toward ending this inhumanity, but it must move swiftly to remedy the life-threatening situation facing everyone affected by this policy," she added.

For months, officials have been meticulously planning the rollback of the policy, formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols, and engaging with immigrant advocacy organizations along the border who have directly worked with migrants.

International organizations are assisting in Mexico. Staging locations have been identified in Mexico at each of the three cities where entries will occur, United Nations officials told reporters this week.

After an individual registers virtually and is confirmed as being eligible to enter, they'll be asked to approach the staging location 24 hours in advance of their crossing date, according to an United Nations official. There, migrants will be tested for Covid-19. If someone tests positive, they'll be put in quarantine for 10 days.

"Through the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the United States is funding international organization partners with experience conducting medical screening for migrant populations around the world to assist individuals prior to arrival at U.S. ports of entry," according to a State Department fact sheet.

Once migrants come into the US, the Biden administration is heavily relying on advocacy organizations to help migrants get where they need to go. Some, for example, may have family or friends in different parts of the US and will go to those locations and complete their immigration court hearings there.

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