The Biden administration on Friday announced plans for tens of thousands of asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico for their next immigration court hearings to be allowed into the United States while their cases proceed.
The first of an estimated 25,000 asylum-seekers in Mexico with active cases will be allowed in the U.S. on Feb. 19, authorities said.
They plan to start slowly with two border crossings each processing up to 300 people a day and a third crossing taking fewer. Administration officials declined to name them out of fear they may encourage a rush of people to those locations.
The move is a major step toward dismantling one of former President Donald Trump's most consequential policies to deter asylum-seekers from coming to the U.S. About 70,000 asylum-seekers were enrolled in "Remain in Mexico," officially called "Migrant Protection Protocols," since it was introduced in January 2019.
On Biden's first day in office, the Homeland Security Department suspended the policy for new arrivals. Since then, some asylum-seekers picked up at the border have been released in the U.S. with notices to appear in court. Biden is quickly making good on a campaign promise to end the policy, which the Trump administration said was critical to reversing a surge of asylum-seekers that peaked in 2019.
But the policy also exposed people to violence in Mexican border cities and made it extremely difficult for them to find lawyers and communicate with courts about their cases.
"As President Biden has made clear, the U.S. government is committed to rebuilding a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system," said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. "This latest action is another step in our commitment to reform immigration policies that do not align with our nation’s values."
Homeland Security said the move "should not be interpreted as an opening for people to migrate irregularly to the United States."
Administration officials have said repeatedly that the vast majority of people who cross the border illegally are quickly expelled under a public health order in place since the pandemic struck in March, but releases of some asylum-seeking families in Texas and California has worked against that messaging.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that she was concerned that limited releases in the U.S. may encourage others to cross illegally because "we don’t want people to put themselves in danger at a time where it is not the right time to come, because we have not had time to put in place a humane and moral system and process."
Hearings for people enrolled in "Remain in Mexico" have been suspended since June due to the pandemic. Getting word out on when to report to the border for release in the United States may prove a daunting job.
Homeland Security said it would soon announce a "virtual registration process" available online and by phone for people to learn where and when they should report. It urged asylum-seekers not to report to the border unless instructed.
Asylum-seekers will be tested for COVID-19 before entering the U.S.
The announcement provides no relief to people whose cases were dismissed or denied, though administration officials did not rule out additional measures. Advocates argue that communication problems, including lack of working addresses in Mexico, caused some to miss hearings and lose their cases as a result. More people are getting stopped crossing the border illegally since Biden took office.
Raul Ortiz, deputy chief of the Border Patrol, said Tuesday that more than 3,000 people had been stopped crossing the border illegally in each of the previous 10 days, compared to a daily average of 2,426 in January.
About 50 to 80 adults and children have been arriving daily since Jan. 27 at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which temporarily houses people released by the Border Patrol, said Sister Norma Pimentel, the group’s executive director.
The charity tests for COVID-19 and sends anyone who tests positive to a hotel for isolation. Jewish Family Service of San Diego housed 191 asylum-seekers the first 10 days of February after they were released by U.S. authorities, up from 144 in January and 54 in December, said Eitan Peled, the group’s border services advocate. They are quarantined in hotels for 10 days.
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