The Biden Administration has recently announced that it will reinstate the “Migrant Protection Program” (what a misnomer) also called “Remain in Mexico” (somewhat more honest). Established by the Trump Administration, it requires asylum seekers, who approach the US border from Mexico, to stay there while their cases are adjudicated.
If you thought that policy was still in place, you are excused. It is very hard to keep track of US policies to deter asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border. Just to refresh your memory, the other one is called “Title 42,” which sounds like an article of the Constitution or the chapter of a much too long book. Title 42 is shorthand for the health code that allows the government to turn back potential asylum seekers using a public health rationale. While it may have had justification early in the Covid-19 pandemic, it is now simply a specious legal argument that allows the Border Patrol to turn people away before they can apply for asylum.
Democrats cried foul when the Trump Administration created Remain in Mexico, and a sad looking encampment of asylum seekers formed in Matamoros, within sight of the Brownsville border crossing. When President Biden was elected, they reversed the Remain in Mexico policy and dismantled the camp, but kept Title 42. It was a handy rationale to keep asylum seekers at bay.
Now, US courts have instructed the Biden Administration to reinstate Remain in Mexico. But before we allow “the judge made me do it” excuse to settle in, note that this decision was made because the Trump era program was determined to have been improperly terminated. The Biden Administration could simply decide to end it in a way that is acceptable to the court.
Let’s be clear. Instead of deciding to properly end the Trump era program, which violated international asylum commitments, the Biden Administration will own Remain in Mexico. This stain is on them.
Where does all of this leave asylum seekers? Dumped back on the Mexican side of the border, without support. There are currently camps of potential US asylum seekers sitting in plazas in Reynosa and Tijuana. They are disturbing scenes of humanity, filth and people being preyed upon by criminals.
Neither country wants to encourage asylum seekers and seem to think that misery is the best deterrent. Where are the international humanitarian assistance organizations that we all know and love – the big institutions like the UN High Commission for Refugees or the big international NGOs? Not in the most dangerous Mexican border cities. They all consider them too dangerous to have a continuous presence. The US State Department lists Tamaulipas as a “Do Not Travel” state, and seriously restricts the travel of US employees.
But this is where we will send migrants to wait while their US asylum claims are considered. To be clear, people requesting asylum do so because of a fear of persecution in their home countries. Our response is to make them wait in places where international organizations are too afraid to work, and US government employees are prohibited from moving about.
US citizens are rightly outraged when children’s rights are not respected in US immigration facilities, or when Haitian migrants are chased on horseback at the border. But if we push these same people across the line back into Mexico, those so outraged fall silent. Pushing the asylum crisis into Mexico, into places US citizens will not venture, may help those on this side of the border sleep better at night, because they don’t see the problem. But Remain in Mexico creates a nightmare for asylum seekers and if President Biden reinstates it, he will shoulder the blame.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson