Here's What Advocates Are Saying About the Reinstatement of Trump's 'Remain in Mexico' Policy

A tall border fence has long separated Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Mexico.
A tall border fence has long separated Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Mexico. Steven Hsieh
In a decision issued earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Biden administration must revive a controversial policy that forced migrants to remain in Mexico while seeking asylum. The ruling has been met with withering criticism from immigration advocates in Arizona, who argue it endangers asylum seekers at the border.

The policy, which is officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, was a product of the Trump administration. It has left migrants stranded in border towns and cities, where many sleep in large tent camps waiting for their day in immigration court. Human Rights Watch has cataloged routine abuse suffered by migrants who were sent back to Mexico under the program, including instances of kidnapping, rape, and murder. Hundreds of asylum seekers who were returned to Mexico under MPP ended up stuck in limbo in Nogales, Sonora.

In February, the Biden administration began admitting asylum seekers stuck in Mexico into the U.S. before dissolving the MPP program altogether in June. However, attorneys general in Missouri and Texas sued to try and get the program reinstated. In August, a federal judge in Texas sided with the plaintiffs and ruled that the Biden administration must "enforce and implement MPP." The Supreme Court upheld that ruling on August 24.

The Biden administration has indicated that it will abide by the decision. In a statement issued after the Supreme Court's ruling, the Department of Homeland Security said that while the agency will "continue to vigorously challenge" the Texas judge's ruling in court, it will "comply with the order in good faith."

Local immigration advocates promptly criticized the decision as an unnecessary and harmful reversion that will result in asylum seekers once again being stranded in Mexican border towns. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research center at Syracuse University, as of June 2021, an estimated 16,000 MPP enrollees have not yet been admitted to the U.S.

"It’s certainly not going to help the crisis at the border — of course it’s not going to," said Matthew Green, a Tucson-based immigration attorney. "We have a ton of non-citizens, asylum seekers amassed at the border and this is just going to, whether you stop letting people in and or send people back, it’s only going to exacerbate that particular problem."

"People who had been displaced and harmed for years under the prior iteration of the 'Remain in Mexico' policy, now, once again, the doors are truly shut in their face," said Chelsea Sachau, an attorney with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project who works with migrants on the Arizona-Mexico border. "It is going to subject asylum seekers, who are people claiming persecution, to incredible harms. I've heard countless stories of kidnapping, sexual abuse, rape, family members who were disappeared and assumed dead."

Sachau added that many MPP enrollees who were previously based in Nogales have since traveled to other Mexican border cities, such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, because U.S. immigration officials were largely only admitting MPP asylum seekers at those ports of entry. The "cruel" policy change, she said, amounts to another "devastating blow" for migrants who hoped to be processed at other ports of entry.

The Supreme Court's decision wasn't without its supporters in Arizona. Governor Doug Ducey, who routinely criticizes the Biden administration over its immigration policies, praised the ruling in a tweet issued Wednesday. "The Supreme Court said it best: the call to rescind the Migrant Protection Protocols was 'arbitrary and capricious.' Enough with the politics. We need leadership. And border security," Ducey wrote.

In response to the ruling, United Nations agencies that had previously been tasked by the Biden administration with running logistics for the MPP program have already stopped processing asylum seekers.

Chris Boian, a spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told Phoenix New Times that the agency has "suspended" processing MPP enrollees. Similarly, Alberto Cabezas Talavero, a Mexico City-based spokesperson for the International Office for Migration, another United Nations agency, said his organization today stopped its MPP-related operations, which consisted of administering COVID-19 tests to asylum seekers prior to their entrance to the U.S. and escorting them to ports of entry.

When asked if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would actively try to deport asylum seekers who were admitted to the U.S. through MPP, Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a spokesperson for the agency, referred Phoenix New Times to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to requests for comment. Immigration attorneys, though, are doubtful that the Biden administration would actually remove MPP enrollees who have already been allowed to enter the country.

"It really affects anyone who was in line for processing with the UNHCR," Sachau said. "It seems that the people who will be least affected are those who have already been processed into the U.S."

When asked how U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, would carry out the court order to reinstate the MPP program, John Mennell, a CBP spokesperson referred New Times to the agency's August 24 statement.

"DHS has begun to engage with the Government of Mexico in diplomatic discussions surrounding the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)," the statement reads.
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety