Biden Ends Migrant Protection Protocols But Sends Mixed Signals on Future Asylum-Seekers

For two years — from January 2019 until February 2021 — the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), commonly known as the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, forced over 70,000 asylum-seekers to await their US asylum claims in Mexico under conditions of violence and vulnerability. When the Biden administration took office, they ended new entries into MPP and by the end of February, migrants who had remained near the border, many in camps, were finally allowed to begin entering the United States to await their asylum cases. Migrants whose asylum claims had been rejected or who had given up their US asylum cases, however, would be given no second chance.

The Migrant Protection Protocols were part of the Trump administration’s broader effort to restrict both lawful and unlawful migration and to use harsh policies such as family separation to deter migrants from coming to the United States. The MPP policy was announced in December 2018 by former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and implemented in January 2019. MPP was a border control strategy whereby individuals seeking asylum along the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation may be returned to Mexico to await the duration of their immigration proceedings.

The implementation of MPP has manipulated key aspects of the asylum process giving rise to widespread rejection of asylum claims. For instance, as migrants in MPP were forced to wait in Mexico rather than in the US, they have struggled to obtain legal counsel, one of the most critical factors in determining the outcome of asylum cases. According to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, only 7.6% of all individuals who have been placed in MPP have had legal representation compared to 80% for all asylum cases decided in the United States in fiscal year 2020.

All of this has contributed to alarmingly low rates of asylum. Only 1.5% of all completed MPP cases have resulted in asylum or other forms of relief. By contrast, in fiscal year 2017, 40% of all asylum-seekers had their claims granted by an immigration judge in court.

For over two years, MPP has forced migrants to wait in northern Mexico, including the state of Tamaulipas which the U.S. Department of State has deemed too dangerous for U.S. citizens due to reports of crime and kidnapping. Mexico has claimed to provide individuals in MPP with humanitarian protections, but has largely failed to do so. Due to the nature of their immigration status, their perceived vulnerability, and potential contacts in the United States, migrants are targeted by criminal cartels.

On President Biden’s first day in office, he issued an executive order that ended all new enrollments into MPP and asked those in the program to “remain where they are” until the government issued new guidance. Then, in February 2021, after President Biden ordered the Department of Homeland Security to review MPP, DHS announced that it would begin hearing the cases of asylum-seekers remaining in the program, but the agency did not provide an indication that it would reopen the cases that were rejected under the program.

Although the Biden administration is currently terminating MPP and processing the remaining cases on the MPP docket, the impacts of the program will be long-lasting. Migrants who were waiting in Mexico under the MPP program for months are only now beginning their asylum process in the immigration courts at a time when the courts are backlogged with nearly 1.3 million pending cases. It could take years before these asylum seekers receive a decision in their case. But for those migrants whose cases are now closed, most of whom never had the opportunity to present their case before a judge, there are likely no second chances.

Click here to read the complete story written with my co-author Anna-Theresa Unger at Oxford University’s Border Criminologies Blog.

Critical geographer studying immigration, policing, and courts. Visit AustinKocher.com for more on the current state of the US immigration system.

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