NEW YORK — When President Joe Biden took office on Jan. 20, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso remembers that regardless of other policy disagreements the nation’s bishops were confident that immigration was an issue the two sides could work together to solve.
It’s now Dec. 3, but little has changed in immigration policy. The Biden administration announced on Thursday that it reached an agreement with Mexico to restart a policy that forces migrants to wait in Mexico until immigration officials rule on their asylum claim, to the dismay of immigration advocates who have long called the policy inhumane.
“It’s very disappointing and frustrating to those of us who see the suffering every day,” Bishop Seitz told The Tablet. “[Here on the border] we see [migrants’] pain. We hear their stories and these government policies that seem to fulfill some kind of political goal have real-life effects on people who once again are being treated like pawns in some kind of international chess match.”
The Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as the Remain in Mexico policy, was enacted by President Donald Trump in January 2019. Biden made clear his intention to terminate the policy upon taking office, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas did so on June 1, 2021. Two months later, on August 13, a district judge in Texas ruled the Biden administration must make a “good faith” effort to reinstate the policy. That ruling was upheld after the Supreme Court denied an emergency appeal to stay the order.
Still, implementing the Remain in Mexico policy hinged on cooperation from the Mexican government, which the Biden administration received through the new agreement.
Critics of the Remain in Mexico policy decry the squalid, overcrowded conditions the migrants face across the border, as well as the time it takes — sometimes years — for a ruling on asylum claims, and the potential danger the migrants face in vulnerable circumstances.
“This policy throws migrants at their most vulnerable moment into a situation where they are subject to gangs and too many people who are willing to take advantage of them in a very unstable place right now in those Mexican border communities,” said Bishop Seitz, who is chairman-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration, and vice president of the board of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC).
There are several new guiding principles for the reimplementation of the program in the Biden administration’s new agreement with Mexico that aim to make it more humanitarian. The plan is for the program to restart next week. Individuals will be processed for the policy through seven ports of entry: San Diego, Calexico, Nogales, El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville.
In this iteration of the program, the U.S. will work to conclude all cases within six months of a migrant’s return to Mexico. All individuals enrolled in the program who meet COVID-19 vaccine eligibility criteria will be provided vaccinations and need proof of vaccination for re-entry into the United States, according to a Dec. 2 Department of Homeland Security memorandum.
Unaccompanied minors, elderly, disabled, pregnant, and LGBTQ people are among those exempt from the Remain in Mexico policy, the memorandum says. It further states that family units will not be separated under the policy.
Supporters of the policy argue that it’s necessary with the record number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. From October 2020 to September 2021, US Customs and Border Protection encountered over 1.7 million migrants at the southwest border. The monthly total jumped from about 101,000 to about 173,000 from February to March and remained over 175,000 for the rest of the fiscal year. The number dropped to about 164,000 in October — the first month of Fiscal Year 2022.
Immigration advocates, however, push back on this claim and argue that deterrent strategies like the Remain in Mexico policy and Title 42 — a policy that allows the immediate expulsion of migrants at the border on the basis of public health during the pandemic — only exacerbate the problem all the while denying migrants their legal right to asylum.
“The [Remain in Mexico policy] pictures these people as doing something that is wrong and somehow immoral, when in fact they’re very right to escape for the sake of their lives and the lives of their families enshrined in national and international law,” Bishop Seitz said. “We are finding ways to set that fundamental right to asylum aside.”
Other immigration advocates also decried the Biden administration’s move.
“We can no longer afford half-measures or backsliding, and the return of Remain in Mexico is a devastating step backward,” said Dylan Corbett, the executive director of the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute in a statement. “Now is the time to restore robust protections, address root causes, and put in place forward-looking, humane systems that honor the rights of people on the move.”
Anna Gallagher, the executive director of CLINIC, called the policy “dangerous and deadly” and its reimplementation “a stain on our nation.”
“It is inhumane, unjust, and violates our obligations under our own legal system and international refugee law,” Gallagher said in a statement. “Mr. President, we implore you to follow the Catholic values that form the foundation of your life-long public leadership of our country.”
Bishop Seitz also worries about the impact the policy has on Mexico’s border communities. He recalls previous times when shelters in Ciudad Juárez were overwhelmed because of the policy, leaving people with no place to go.
“Now to add to the suffering we’re doing this as winter sets in,” Bishop Seitz noted. “Are we going to have people in Ciudad Juárez sleeping on streets in addition to all of the other dangers that they face in a place where gangs are pretty much running free?”
When asked about the policy’s reimplementation on Dec. 2, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that the Biden administration had no choice because of the court order, and emphasized that “the president continues to believe that MPP has endemic flaws, imposed unjustifiable human costs, pulled resources and personnel away from other priority efforts.”
The memorandum from the Department of Homeland Security noted that it has appealed the district court ruling, and will terminate the Remain in Mexico policy if the final judicial ruling vacates that of the district court.