10/10 © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: US President Donald Trump Arrives at Palm Beach International Airport 2/10
By Ted Hesson and Mimi Dwyer WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States government next week will gradually begin processing asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico under a controversial program implemented by former President Donald Trump, officials said. The measures are part of a plan by President Joe Biden‘s administration to end the program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), an effort complicated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and concerns about illegal immigration. The Trump administration launched the program in 2019 as part of a broad crackdown on the ability to seek asylum in the United States, which Trump officials described as plagued with fraud and meritless claims. The initiative forced more than 65,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to cross the border to await their hearings in US courts, although far fewer are believed to remain in Mexico. The Biden administration will begin work to process about 25,000 migrants with active claims in the program, officials said Thursday. Biden vowed in the election campaign to reverse restrictive Trump-era immigration policies, including the MPP, which is informally known as “staying in Mexico.” His administration suspended new entries to the program when he took office on January 20, but did not immediately present a plan to bring those already in the program to the United States. Republicans who embrace Trump’s harsh views on immigration have criticized the end of MPP and could use it as fuel for political attacks if illegal immigration increases under Biden’s watch. Top Biden officials have emphasized in recent weeks that migrants should not attempt to enter the United States, saying they need more time to develop the capacity to process more asylum seekers. “People who are not eligible in this initial phase should wait for further instructions and not travel to the border,” National Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “Due to the current pandemic, the border restrictions remain in place and will be enforced.” During a call with reporters Thursday night, three Biden administration officials outlined plans to roll back the program, with the first phase beginning on February 19. Under the plan, migrants will have to register with international organizations via the Internet or by phone and await instructions. An international organization will screen migrants for the new coronavirus while they are in Mexico. Biden officials declined to identify the organizations Thursday, saying they would be inundated with inquiries. STARTING SMALL Migrants’ complaints will initially be heard at three ports of entry along the border, with organizations working to identify those who are in line the longest and those who are considered particularly vulnerable. At two of the ports, Biden’s management expects to process 300 people a day, a number that could increase over time. “We will start small,” said one of the officials, all of whom requested anonymity. Biden officials declined to name the ports where the administration planned to begin processing, citing fears that people would rush to those locations. The United States developed the strategy in close coordination with Mexican authorities, according to officials. Even as Biden moves to end a Trump program, he faces mounting pressure from advocates to end another known as Title 42. The COVID-era order allows U.S. authorities to swiftly expel the migrants caught crossing the border illegally, a practice advocates say is bypassed due process. The Biden administration has not said whether it will end that program. The effort to prosecute MPP affiliates comes as arrests of migrants at the US-Mexico border have spiked after a sharp drop at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In January, US officials encountered nearly 78,000 migrants attempting to cross the southern border illegally or being denied access to ports of entry, a 6% increase from the previous month.