Homeland Security will allow tens of thousands of migrants who’d been mired for months in Mexico into the U.S. starting at the end of this week, erasing a Trump-era policy and sparking new worries over risks of coronavirus infections.
The migrants are part of the Migration Protection Protocols, more commonly referred to as the “remain in Mexico” policy, which allowed border authorities to process and return illegal entrants to Mexico to await their immigration court dates.
MPP had the effect of denying would-be illegal immigrants a foothold in the U.S., eliminating one of the incentives that fueled people making the attempt during the 2019 surge.
But the Biden administration has called the program a stain on America’s immigrant legacy, and immigrant-rights groups say people have been victimized while waiting in Mexico.
Some 25,000 people with active cases who are believed to be currently in Mexico will be admitted and granted that foothold in the U.S. while they await their cases. The program will begin admissions Feb. 19.
“This latest action is another step in our commitment to reform immigration policies that do not align with our nation’s values,” said new Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.
The move drew swift condemnation from Republicans on Capitol Hill who said MPP was a linchpin policy that had prevented a surge of migrants.
The 25,000 people have also been in Mexico for months, as that country struggles with handling COVID-19.
Homeland Security said it’s placing its faith in testing.
Migrants will have to have a negative test in hand when they show up at a border crossing, Homeland Security told The Washington Times.
Those who test positive will remain in Mexico, where they’ll be “supported by international partner organizations” to quarantine or get treatment, depending on which course Mexico recommends.
“Following quarantine and a negative COVID-19 test, individuals would again be eligible for entry,” the department said. “Facial coverings will be required, and physical distancing protocols will be in place. We will emphasize full compliance with federal, state, and local health orders.”
John Katko, ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, called the rush to admit the migrants misguided.
“President Biden has kept his campaign promises to the thousands of migrants looking to illegally cross our borders,” he said. “Yet he has failed to ensure a vaccination plan, let alone a simple COVID-19 testing program, is in place for frontline CBP and ICE personnel, even after thousands have contracted the virus in the line of duty.”
Nearly 7,800 Customs and Border Protection employees have contracted COVID-19, and 25 have died from cases contracted while on duty.
The Trump administration instituted the MPP as it dealt with migrant caravans in 2018 and an even larger surge of migrants in 2019. Mexico, while saying it didn’t have a role in approving the plan, did agree to cooperate in readmitting those returned across the border.
Security analysts point to the MPP as the single biggest factor in stopping the 2019 surge, though immigrant rights advocates say it left thousands of people stuck in a country without adequate protection. The pandemic also curtailed immigration court hearings in the U.S., extending the waits the migrants experienced.
Mr. Katko said relaxing the MPP would send a signal to other would-be migrants that they might have a chance at gaining a foothold in the U.S.
“The situation at the border, combined with the raging pandemic, has created a perfect storm of security, humanitarian and public health concerns,” he said.
Homeland Security is aware of the danger of wrong signals.
In announcing the new MPP opening, Mr. Mayorkas warned people who weren’t part of the program, or who don’t still have an active immigration court case, not to queue up.
The department also issued a caution, in English and Spanish, to other would-be migrants that the move “should not be interpreted as an opening for people to migrate irregularly to the United States.”