Originally Published in The Hill
Rebecca Beitsch - February 12, 2021
The Biden administration on Friday rolled out its plans for addressing tens of thousands of migrants camped out at the southern border as it seeks to replace the Trump administration’s "remain in Mexico" policy.
Former President Trump’s policy, implemented in 2019, blocked migrants at the Mexican border from entering the U.S. to apply for asylum, leaving what the Biden administration estimates is now around 25,000 people awaiting their fate in Mexico.
In what the administration deemed as phase one of their plan, the U.S. will begin processing as many as 300 people per day at three different undisclosed ports of entry starting Feb. 19.
“This is an important part of President Biden's commitment to restoring humane and orderly processing at the border. And that means we need to start asylum proceedings and allow people access to asylum proceedings in the United States for people who have been too long kept in Mexico and been unable to pursue their cases,” a senior administration official said on a call with reporters.
The U.S. will begin by processing those who have already enrolled in Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program who must then coordinate with a forthcoming international organization who will help coordinate housing and test migrants for COVID-19. Only those with a negative test will be permitted to enter.
Administration officials said they would “start small” in an effort to ensure the system is working and that migrants can “be processed in a timely fashion with due regard for public health in the middle of a pandemic.”
But the plan was accompanied by strict warnings that people should not head to the border, while those enrolled in MPP should await more specific instructions.
“We are beginning this move in 30 days of the inauguration to demonstrate our commitment to a legal pathway to migration," an administration official said, noting that the Biden team began to formulate the plan during the transition.
"But that does not change the status at the border and people should not assume that now they can come to the border and be part of this process,” the official said.
Organizing the process will require an incredible amount of outreach, both to communicate who is eligible and to ensure they register with the international organization.
“To some extent we are relying on people to come to us,” an official said.
The Biden administration inherited a complex situation at the border. Those officially enrolled in MPP are joined by those who arrived at the border only to be hit with a “metering” practice put in place by the Trump administration that caps the number of people who could apply for asylum each day. The previous administration also implemented expulsions that used the coronavirus pandemic as a means to remove non-citizens.
“The Trump administration was very effective at creating layered barriers,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, adding that the previous administration “didn’t implement any meaningful way to track people or communicate with them directly” when it created the MPP program.
“Rescinding MPP is a critical step but there’s still a great deal of work to be done at the border to begin to restore the U.S.’s position as beacon of hope where people can seek protection from persecution in a meaningful way.”
Once asylum-seekers cross the border, they will be placed in “alternative detention programs,” though the administration is still formulating precisely what that will look like.
Such a program could include ankle monitors, though officials said they are weighing a variety of options, with the goal of being to allow asylum-seekers to have their cases transferred to whatever court is appropriate for the location they’re headed.
“These individuals will be brought in. We will know what their final destination is in the United States. They will be put in alternative detention programs so we can track individuals,” the official said. “And then [their case] will be in the immigration court system housed in the Department of Justice, and their cases will proceed accordingly.”
Republicans argue those entering the U.S. will face a massive immigration case backlog and fear Biden's policy will incentivize more migrants to come here.
“Those being re-processed south of our border by international organizations, who will determine their eligibility, will soon be released into U.S. communities as they get added to the 1,000,000+ immigration court backlog. Adjudication will take years. As more migrants catch wind of the reimplementation of 'catch-and-release,' the surge on our border will be unimaginable," House Homeland Security ranking member John Katko (R-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Loweree said it's home country conditions, not immigration policies, that are spurring migration and warned against any use of traditional detention centers for the incoming asylum seekers, noting that detainment is typically used when immigration officials are doubtful someone will appear for their hearings.
“It’s hard to imagine someone would live in a makeshift refugee camp if there wasn’t a great deal of truth to what they’re saying about their inability to live in their home country,” he said.