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Biden administration will resume 'Remain in Mexico' policy for asylum-seekers


The Biden administration has reinstated a Trump-era policy that President Biden once called inhumane. Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as "Remain in Mexico," effectively makes asylum-seekers stay in Mexico until their court hearing. President Biden suspended it on his first day in office. But last August, a federal judge in Texas ordered it reinstated. So next week, under a new agreement with the Mexican government, it goes back into effect.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick is the policy counsel for the American Immigration Council. Aaron, your organization calls the restart of this policy a betrayal. But considering it was a court order, what other choice did the Biden administration have?

AARON REICHLIN-MELNICK: Thank you, and good morning. And thank you for having me. The reality is is the Biden administration could have negotiated a much better deal with Mexico, and we are particularly upset with the Biden administration's choice to not only reinstate the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols but actually to expand them to all Western hemisphere nationals, including Haitians who were previously exempt from MPP under Trump, and that was not required by the court.

MARTÍNEZ: But you acknowledge that he had to do it. The administration had to do it. You're just upset over how it's being done.

REICHLIN-MELNICK: Importantly, the court actually said that if Mexico disagreed with the MPP program, the Biden administration didn't have to do it. And we know that the Biden administration negotiated this with Mexico, and high-level White House officials had already been talking about bringing back the program before the court order even came down. So while we acknowledge that the court order did require the Biden administration to do this, there was actually significant leeway during the negotiation process with Mexico.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the Biden administration is promising better screening, more representation, shorter wait times. If that's the case, Aaron, does that make this decision, at least for the time being, more acceptable?

REICHLIN-MELNICK: The reality is that the Biden administration cannot make the inhumane humane. The court process created by MPP is a sham. It's nearly impossible to make a strong asylum claim while penniless, without a lawyer and constantly looking over your shoulder in fear. MPP forces vulnerable families to run a gauntlet of kidnappers just to make it to the courthouse door. And no matter how you slice it, MPP just doesn't work. So there is no lipstick to be put on this pig. No matter what the Biden administration has promised about changes, we do not expect that they will change the fundamental reality that it's impossible to make a fair claim for asylum under MPP.

MARTÍNEZ: But, Aaron, isn't one of the issues that most have a problem with is that sometimes migrants wait indefinitely, endlessly for their time in court? Under this agreement, it'll be a turnaround of no more than six months.

REICHLIN-MELNICK: We have to remember that the Trump administration also promised that people put into MPP in 2019 would be put through the program in just six months. But by the time that MPP was stopped by the Biden administration, in some courts around the border, people were waiting six months just for a first hearing. And there is little reason to expect that that's not going to happen exactly the same this time around, too.

MARTÍNEZ: So you think that under the Biden administration, the six months won't happen. It'll be just like the Trump administration.

REICHLIN-MELNICK: This is especially true in places like El Paso, where there are just four immigration court judges who will be hearing these cases. By the time the Trump administration had stopped with MPP, you know, when Biden took office, every judge in El Paso - all four of them - had nearly 5,000 MPP cases assigned to them. And unless the Biden administration only uses MPP for a small handful of people, which is not what we expect, that exact problem is going to come right back.

In fact, internal reports during the Trump administration said that MPP effectively broke the immigration courts. They put 70,000 people through the program and only were able to assign a couple of dozen judges. And so we really don't see any reason why those exact same problems are not going to come back again. The changes the Biden administration has made to the program do not address those inherently. And if the government starts putting the same number of people back into the program, there haven't been any changes. And in fact, things have gotten worse due to COVID.

MARTÍNEZ: So Aaron, if a policy, even a revamped Remain in Mexico policy is not the answer, what is the solution, then, both in the short and long term? Well, maybe just the short term - long term, I think, you know, immigration reform is probably the long-term answer - but in the short term, then.

REICHLIN-MELNICK: Well, we have to remember that migration doesn't happen in a vacuum. We are in an unprecedented era of mass displacement. Refugee applications are up in all countries, not just the United States. So if the goal is stopping migrants from coming to the border, the reality is that there is no short-term solution. Even the extreme cruelty of family separation in 2018 didn't stop migrants from coming. What we can do is surge resources to the border while we work on those medium- and long-term solutions, like addressing root causes and expanding legal pathways for migration. Our challenge to migrants is how we respond, with cruelty or with humanity and due process.

MARTÍNEZ: Aaron Reichlin-Melnick is with the American Immigration Council. Aaron, thank you.

REICHLIN-MELNICK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.