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'Calm before the storm': Remain in Mexico 2.0 on track to repeat failings of first

The second iteration of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP 2.0) promises to return just as many or more asylum seekers from the U.S.-Mexico border as its antecedent when the program expands in the coming months.

The Biden administration was forced to restart the controversial program —also known as "Remain in Mexico" — in December after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to stay a federal court injunction mandating the reinstatement this past August.

So far only around 250 asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico under MPP 2.0, which first began in El Paso, Texas, and was expanded to San Diego this month. 

While not alarming in and of itself, that number more or less tracks with the first months of the initial program under the administration of President Donald Trump, which went into effect in January 2019. By the summer of that year, as the program expanded to other parts of the border, the monthly numbers peaked at over 10,000 asylum seekers returned in a single month.

“In many ways, this is the calm before the storm,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel and border issues specialist at the American Immigration Council. "We should fully expect that things are going to get worse."

While no dates have been set for the expansion of MMP 2.0 to other cities on the border, the Biden administration announced it will eventually be applied in Calexico, California, Nogales, Arizona, and Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville, in Texas.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City reportedly told migrant activists and shelter administrators in Tijuana that the total number of daily MPP 2.0 returns to the city would be capped at 30. Basing projections on that statement, experts predict migrants shelters in Mexico will need to find the resources to feed, clothe, and house up to 6,500 returned asylum applicants each month once the program is in full swing. 

Still, much like almost every aspect of the rebooted program, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over those predictions. 

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“Whether or not they actually reach those numbers is still unclear, and whether or not they decide to go beyond those numbers is unclear,” said Reichlin-Melnick.

The Remain in Mexico policy's past is just as hazy as its future. Even the total amount of applicants under MPP 1.0 varies slightly depending on the source. While the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) puts that number around 68,000, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University has tallied 71,076 MPP 1.0 cases. 

Of those, the former cites just 723 cases in which asylum or another kind of relief was granted; the latter, 742.

As new cases begin to trickle in under MPP 2.0, over 25,000 remain pending in the courts from the first round. During what the Biden administration called a “winding down” of MPP at the beginning of his presidency, just under 13,000 people waiting in Mexico were allowed to reenter the United States to finish the wait for their hearings north of the border. Whether or not the more than 12,000 who did not return under the auspices of this "wind-down" still plan on seeking asylum is unclear, as are several other details about their whereabouts and safety.

“There’s a lot of questions about where these people are,” said Reichlin-Melnick, who provided a few possibilities. They may be back in their home countries. They may have been unaware of the “wind-down” process. They may have successfully crossed the border without being caught and are currently living in the United States. 

Some may have given up on the American dream altogether. Asylum claims in Mexico nearly doubled in 2021, and while the country’s Commission on Refugee Aid (COMAR) was direly under-resourced to meet the demand, there are signs that many migrants have been able to stay and work south of the border.

FEMSA, operator of the country’s largest convenience store chain Oxxo, tweeted in December that it would hire migrants from Haiti, “giving them the opportunity to begin a new life here.” 

One director of a migrant shelter in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, across the border from Brownsville, told Courthouse News many of the migrants that had been in his facility found jobs in the city and moved out once they were able to afford rent.

Still others suggest bleaker fates for the migrants who slipped through the cracks in MPP 1.0. 

“These people were the perfect targets for organized crime,” said Father Marvin Ajic, director of the Nazareth Migrant Shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. 

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In addition to rape, extortion, abandonment, murder and other dangers that members of organized crime present to migrants, Mexico's El Universal newspaper reported this month that drug traffickers have begun to force migrants to act as drug mules, compelling them to cross the border with over 65 pounds of contraband on their backs.

For many who apply under MPP 2.0, however, the wait in Mexico will not be the only danger. Those who apply in Nogales, for example, will have their hearings in El Paso and will be be responsible for their own transportation. This policy was in place for just a few months during MPP 1.0 before all hearings were suspended in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. 

“We didn’t get a chance to see how bad it was,” said Reichlin-Melnick. “That’s a multiple-hour drive over some pretty dangerous highways.” 

The Biden administration promised to limit wait times for MPP 2.0 hearings to six months, hoping to avoid the yearslong waits from before. However, current final court dates for the few already in the program have been set for April and May, meaning even one delay would prove that promise easily broken.

In El Paso, where only four immigration judges juggled as many as 4,500 MPP cases when the first round of the program was terminated, the postponement of hearings appears all but inevitable. And MPP’s inhumane history seems poised to repeat itself.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Two women file paperwork in Nogales, Sonora in June 2018. Those who apply for asylum in Nogales will have their hearings in El Paso and will be be responsible for their own transportation.

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