| El Paso Times
Migrants react to Biden halting border wall
Migrants and human rights advocates are hopeful that U.S. immigration policies will change once construction of Donald Trump’s border wall stops. (Jan. 21)
EL PASO, Texas — Hope among asylum seekers bloomed in Mexican border cities Thursday after President Joe Biden’s administration halted the controversial “Remain in Mexico” program and said it would review asylum policies.
“The truth is that they are now filled with hope,” said Miguel Gonzalez, who runs the Pasos de Fe shelter in Juárez, Mexico, where migrant families enrolled in the program have been living for months. “They hear that there will be opportunities, or at least they hope there will be.”
During Biden’s first hours in office Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement suspending new enrollments in the program also known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols.”
Some 70,000 migrants — many of them legally seeking asylum or other refuge at the southwest border — were caught in the net of the Migrant Protection Protocols from its inception in early 2019 and turned back to Mexico.
“All current MPP participants should remain where they are, pending further official information from U.S. government officials,” DHS said in the statement.
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Arriving in large part from Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, migrants were made to wait in Mexican border cities such as Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, Juárez and Matamoros for a chance to plead their cases before a U.S. immigration judge.
Thousands enrolled in the program have been hunkered down in shelters for months, even years.
More than 27,000 people were attending their MPP hearings regularly before U.S. immigration courts closed last year due to the pandemic, according to an analysis of government data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Another 12,000 migrants are still awaiting their first hearing.
Halting the Migrant Protection Protocols “is a good first step,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of the El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Rights Center, which provides pro bono legal representation to migrants. “We know it will take some time (to implement) but urge that more positive changes come soon.”
Without family networks and without permission to work in Mexico — and facing an asylum approval rate of less than 1% within the program — tens of thousands more gave up their claims.
Some crossed the U.S. border illegally. Others returned home to face debt, hunger and, in some cases, persecution or threats on their lives.
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Thirty thousand people enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocol have been deported “in absentia” after failing to attend an U.S. immigration court hearing, according to TRAC’s analysis.
“We are advocating with our allies for humanitarian parole that allows the current asylum seekers entry into the U.S. while they await their court dates, and the resources necessary to meet this crisis and carry out due process,” said Charlene D’Cruz, a Brownsville, Texas, immigration attorney and program director of Project Corazon, which also provides legal assistance to migrants.
Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales, who represents rural West Texas border counties, told the El Paso Times, part of the USA TODAY Network, he is concerned about rapid-fire executive action on border policies. He’d like Congress to take action, he said, without rushing on what he called a “powder keg issue.”
“I believe you have to piecemeal it and work through areas that make sense,” Gonzales said. “It’s also unfortunate that, right off the bat, we’re going to talk about immigration reform. My question is, are you trying to doom it to fail?”
Border ‘encounters’ on the rise
Experts have been warning any shift in border policy could stoke a new humanitarian crisis at the border.
Border Patrol “encounters” along the southwest border rose more than two-thirds during the first three months of fiscal 2021 compared to the prior-year period, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Border Patrol reported 216,701 encounters October to December, compared to 128,347 encounters during the same three months a year earlier, an increase of 69%.
The “encounters” number includes Border Patrol apprehensions and those quickly turned back to Mexico or their home countries under the Title 42 public health law.
In March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control ordered DHS not to detain anyone in “congregant settings,” including border holding cells, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Because people are being quickly turned back, advocates and CBP say some people may be trying multiple times, inflating the number of encounters.
During the last days of the Trump administration, then-acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan warned that “if the Biden team implements the immigration policies they campaigned on they will create an unmitigated crisis in the first few weeks.”
In its latest announcement, the Department of Homeland Security added a note warning would-be migrants against departing for the U.S. border.
“Individuals outside of the United States will not be eligible for legal status under the bill President Biden sent to Congress today,” the statement said. “The legalization provisions in that bill apply only to people already living in the United States.”
Biden’s proposal to Congress on Wednesday concerning immigration reform includes a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.
Follow Lauren Villagran on Twitter: @laurenvillagran
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