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'Remain in Mexico,' the Trump era policy that haunts the Biden administration


A Trump administration immigration policy that was halted by President Biden may be coming back. The Migrant Protection Protocol, or MPP, is also called "Remain in Mexico." It was first implemented under President Trump, and the idea was to keep asylum seekers at the southern border in Mexico while they wait for their claims to be processed in U.S. courts. President Biden paused this policy after he took office, but after some legal back-and-forth, a U.S. District Court judge in Texas ruled this summer that the White House had ended the Remain in Mexico program improperly.

To talk about the legal intricacies of this ruling and the history of MPP, we are joined by Dana Graber Ladek, chief of the International Organization for Migration in Mexico, and Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International.

Welcome to you both.

YAEL SCHACHER: Thank you, Sarah.


MCCAMMON: Yael, I want to start with you. What is the legal basis for the so-called Remain in Mexico program?

SCHACHER: It relies on a provision in the immigration law that says that the administration can return people who arrive through a contiguous territory, either Mexico or Canada, back to that contiguous territory to wait for their hearings. That provision was never meant to apply to asylum seekers. And returning asylum seekers to Mexico was what we call a refoulement, a violation of international law and the prohibition of sending people back to danger.

MCCAMMON: And, Dana, in effect, it sounds simple. But instead of waiting in the U.S., asylum seekers wait in Mexico. But the implications for Mexico of this policy are considerable, right? I mean, what does that look like on the ground?

GRABER LADEK: Well, in terms of the implications for Mexico, we have about 71,000 people who were returned from the United States to Mexican border cities. And this really heightened the challenges that migrants faced in obtaining basic forms of assistance like shelter or health care or other items. And many of these migrants that were returned to Mexico under the MPP also faced serious security risks.

MCCAMMON: And how does this work, Dana? I mean, where do the migrants actually wait? Are we talking about just across the border, or are they sent to other parts of Mexico?

GRABER LADEK: The majority of these migrants are waiting in northern border towns for their court date to come about under pretty dire circumstances. And this could even include, in terms of security, kidnappings, robberies and, in some cases, even death.

SCHACHER: I traveled to the border many times in 2019 and went with many people who are in the program, and I'll just talk about one because he was in one of the shelters that was actually funded by the Mexican government. Once he had his court date, he wasn't able to go back into that shelter. He also was a victim of a violent attack in Mexico and, despite telling this to a judge when he went for his next court date, was not exempted from the Remain in Mexico program. He was with his son, who had severe medical conditions. He left his son in Juarez and tried to enter the United States because he was so desperate. And he actually died in the desert trying to cross into the United States in the summer of 2020.

MCCAMMON: Yael, President Biden made a good number of promises when he was running for office related to immigration. He specifically has criticized this program. What exactly happened, and has his administration given up on trying to defeat this policy?

SCHACHER: As you mentioned, President Biden promised to end the Remain in Mexico program. In the early months of the administration, the Biden administration began to sort of let many of those people come into the country and pursue asylum from within the United States, a sort of normal asylum procedure that existed before the Remain in Mexico program. Then what happened was the Biden administration formally terminated the program. That is when the state of Texas and others sued the Biden administration, saying that the decision to terminate the program didn't take into account the fact that letting people in to seek asylum in the United States was a burden on the states of Texas.

The Biden administration pushed back, but the court in Texas ultimately ruled for the state of Texas. And then the Supreme Court essentially said, yes, the Biden administration needs to, in good faith, either end the program again or put it into place. Biden is not bound to restart the program. He's only bound to figure out a way to terminate it better, which is what we hope he'll do.

MCCAMMON: What are some of the conditions you've seen in Mexico when it comes to the population of Mexico?

GRABER LADEK: Well, absolutely it's been a strain on Mexico, both for the government and for these communities, because Mexico lies in the largest migration corridor in the world. And so a lot of these - the burden falls on Mexico to deal with how to better manage these migration flows. And, of course, that is resulting in an oversaturation for these communities.

Some of these border towns are very small. They do not have the infrastructure - for example, migrant shelters, medical care, education. They just simply don't have the infrastructure to be able to support these populations. We have also seen, unfortunately, an increase in xenophobia, an increase in misinformation both about policies in the United States and about the situation here in Mexico. So it's become an extremely complex environment for Mexico.

MCCAMMON: Now, there's also Title 42, which is the Centers for Disease Control measure that allows border authorities to stop the entry of people who potentially pose a health risk. Yael, how did these two policies work together? And why did the Biden administration initially decide to use Title 42 but not MPP, or Remain in Mexico?

SCHACHER: So in many ways, Title 42 was a broader brushstroke expulsion policy, return policy. It essentially allowed for either the, you know, return to Mexico of people from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America or the expulsion direct to home countries of many, many other people, including the Haitians just a few weeks ago from Del Rio, Texas. The Biden administration seemed to turn to it because it just didn't know what to do. It just wasn't ready and didn't have a process in place to set up a reformed asylum system. And it has turned to Title 42, which is sort of a misuse of a public health authority.

MCCAMMON: And one final question for you both. One of the things that many people point out when talking about both MPP and Title 42 - both of these programs is that this keeps these people, these migrants out of U.S. public view. Is that part of the strategy here?

SCHACHER: I think it is. Seeking asylum in the United States is a legal pathway. And if people are pushed out, we won't see them - out of sight, out of mind. And, I mean, we hear a lot about this dangerous journey that people are taking. I mean, what amount of cruelty and deterrence would United States have to do to prevent those kinds of journeys? Clearly, the push factors are so, so crucial. So what we're doing is the next best thing. Or the way it's being portrayed is just pushing it away because deterrence isn't going to stop people who are willing to take these dangerous journeys. And so the only thing the United States seems to do is sort of push people out of sight and out of mind, saying, oh, this is not our responsibility.

GRABER LADEK: I'd like to complement what Yael said, and this is based on many discussions I've had with migrants here in Mexico. And I think it's very important for all of us to understand that these individuals are simply seeking a better life. They want the opportunity to work. They want the opportunity to provide a good education for their children. They want to be safe. They want to be reunited with family. And we need to remember that any of us would do the same and make the same decisions if we were in their situation.

MCCAMMON: That's Dana Graber Ladek, chief of the International Organization for Migration in Mexico, and Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International.

Thanks to you both.

GRABER LADEK: Thanks for the opportunity.



NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.