By MARIA VERZA and ELLIOT SPAGAT
REYNOSA, Mexico (AP) — A revived Trump-era policy to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. court is reviled by immigration advocates and repudiated by the Biden administration, which acted under a judge’s order. Asylum hopeful Alexander Sánchez of Venezuela has a more favorable view.
“There is no other way to cross legally and, for that reason, I think it’s good,” he said at a migrant shelter in Reynosa, a Mexican border city where he has been living for nine months with his wife and their 5-year-old daughter.
Sánchez’s optimism reflects the desperation of migrants who have seen asylum shut down under U.S. restrictions that deny humanitarian protections on grounds of preventing spread of the coronavirus, another Trump-era policy that the Biden administration supports.
The U.S. returned its first asylum-seekers from Brownsville, Texas, starting Jan. 25, under its “Migrant Protection Protocols” policy. It was barely noticed — the latest step in a slow-moving rollout across the border to make asylum hearings available to migrants who wait in Mexico.
So far, “MPP 2.0” pales compared to pandemic-related restrictions on seeking asylum at the border. Only 381 migrants had been returned to Mexico to wait for hearings from Dec. 6, when it resumed in El Paso, Texas, through Wednesday, according to the U.N. migration agency.
U.S. authorities expelled migrants more than 1.5 million times without an opportunity to claim asylum since March 2020 under the pandemic restrictions known as Title 42 authority, named for a 1944 public health law. In December alone, they were expelled nearly 80,000 times.
Walter Alexis Beltrán said staying at a camp of some 2,000 migrants in Reynosa’s central plaza with his wife and 4-year-old daughter was better than living at home in El Salvador. The optometrist charges 25 cents to charge migrants’ phones with a battery he purchased with his last savings.
Beltrán has been living at the camp for four months, disappointed that U.S. authorities sent him back to Mexico under Title 42 authority without a chance to make his case for asylum. He said he paid a smuggler $4,500 to reach the U.S. from Mexico.
“MPP has advantages and disadvantages,” Beltrán said amid a labyrinth of tents. “The disadvantage is that it’s dangerous here.”
Their hopes may be misplaced. Less than 1% of claims were granted among more than 70,000 people in MPP from its launch in January 2019 to when President Joe Biden suspended it on his first day in office a year ago, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. About half were pending and the rest denied or dismissed.
In August, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee in Amarillo, Texas, ordered that the policy be reinstated “in good faith,” subject to Mexico’s acceptance, triggering months of intense bilateral talks. Biden has been highly critical of the policy, largely because it exposes migrants to extreme violence while waiting in Mexico.
Despite the appearance of asylum being virtually banned, U.S. authorities process about six of every 10 people who cross illegally under immigration laws, which include the right to seek asylum. Nearly all of them — about 100,000 in December alone — are released or detained in the U.S. while judges consider their cases. The administration has not said why so many can seek asylum while remaining in the U.S. — and so many can’t.
More clarity about U.S. policies is needed, said Abraham Barberi, founder of the Dulce Refugio de Matamoros migrant shelter east of Reynosa, who is in regular contact with U.S. authorities.
“Their goal is fewer people coming and discouraging people but they have to make clear who can come and who can’t,” Barberi said. “People need clear direction.”
Talks to resume MPP began every other week after the judge’s order in August and became more frequent as negotiators tackled a growing number of sticking points and logistics and as small migrant caravans moved through southern Mexico.
From the start, Mexico worried about returning people with court dates in the U.S. to the state of Tamaulipas, considered the border’s most dangerous area. It lies across from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.
The Biden administration started “MPP 2.0” in El Paso with plans to process 30 to 50 people a day there, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. They fell far short, even after extending the policy to San Diego in early January.
Of 256 asylum-seekers returned from El Paso as of Jan. 12, Nicaraguans accounted for about three of every five with Venezuelans and Cubans making up most of the rest, according to Human Rights First, an advocacy group.
The Biden administration has declined to say how many asylum-seekers have been returned to Mexico with court dates in the U.S. since the policy resumed and has not provided a breakdown by nationality.
The Homeland Security Department said in response to questions that migrants can’t choose to participate in MPP and that the policy is applied to those who cannot be expelled under pandemic restrictions. It hasn’t said who those people are, but Mexico only accepts people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador under the U.S. public health order. Others from Western hemisphere countries are released with orders to appear in court or detained in the U.S. until they can be flown home, making them prime candidates for MPP.
Migrants keep arriving at the Reynosa camp. Ruth Rubio, Marvin López and their 6-year-old daughter fled Honduras after two of Rubio’s siblings were killed in gang violence. Without guidance from the U.S. government, they are waiting indefinitely to find out if there’s a way to apply for asylum without crossing the border illegally. Rubio’s 20-year-old daughter, who was wounded in Honduras, was allowed to wait in the U.S. pending an asylum decision.
They are interested in the reinstated policy to wait in Mexico for court hearings in the U.S. It is expected to expand soon to the Texas border cities of Laredo and Eagle Pass.
“If it’s the only way (to get asylum in the U.S.), it’s welcome,” said Juan Antonio Sierra of the Pastoral for Human Mobility in Matamoros, a migrant aid group affiliated with the Catholic Church.