BY ALFREDO CORCHADO | THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
EL PASO, Texas — Plans to dramatically expand the Trump administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy are expected any day, paving the way for what critics say will be thousands of migrants left in limbo on the border.
Migration Protection Protocol, also known as Remain in Mexico, went into effect as a pilot project at the Tijuana-San Diego border in December to serve as a deterrent by forcing Central America migrants to return to Mexico pending the outcome of their legal petitions, a process that can take months, if not years.
The proposed policy, facing a lawsuit by the ACLU, is expected to take effect soon in other parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, according to sources, including U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who was earlier briefed by Customs and Border Protection officials and has been informing local leaders in the region.
“We are hearing one thing locally and another thing in Washington, and we are trying to find out exactly what’s going on,” said Escobar, saying the situation is fluid.
U.S. and Mexican authorities did not respond to calls Thursday seeking comment.
The expansion of the proposed policy was first reported by Politico.
The proposed policy represents a radical shift in the way the asylum system currently works, critics say. Under the current system, asylum-seekers who receive initial approval at the border are allowed to remain in the U.S. until their asylum cases work their way through the nation’s backlogged immigration courts.
“If the Trump Administration is successful in applying Remain in Mexico, this will be the single most seismic border policy ever implemented,” said Shaw Drake, policy counsel for the ACLU Border Rights Group in El Paso. “This will fundamentally undermine the humanitarian system put in place by Congress” to process and adjudicate cases of arriving asylum-seekers.
Critics say the policy is also a violation of international laws that guarantee asylum-seekers the right to remain in the U.S. until their cases are resolved if they make the request while already on U.S. soil.
President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency along the Mexican border, saying this region — long considered one of the safest in the U.S. — is being overrun by criminals, drugs and undocumented migrants.
The effects of Remain in Mexico — an increasing number of migrants stuck on the Mexican side of the border — are likely to be complicated by Trump’s so-called metering system, which sets daily limits to the number of people allowed to present their asylum claims at legal ports of entry. For instance, in Ciudad Juarez, just across from El Paso, recently as many as 60 people were being admitted to the U.S. for processing each day. That number is now down to less than 20.
The lower numbers not only discourage migrants from seeking asylum at U.S legal ports of entry, but also are leading many migrants to attempt crossing the border in remote, dangerous areas, often with the help of smugglers.
“The only crisis on the border is the humanitarian crisis that Trump created,” Shaw added. “Let’s be clear: The policy of Remain in Mexico, or Migration Protection Protocol, is illegal,” under international law, adding that such a policy leaves migrants vulnerable in border cities like Juarez.
Last December, two Honduran teenagers, who were in the metering system, were killed in Tijuana. Already, migrant shelters on both sides of the border are packed and crime is on the rise in Juarez.
“Mexican border communities like Ciudad Juarez simply don’t have the capacity to meet the needs of all these migrants,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “So far it is slow moving, but we are headed toward a breaking point. Doing this in a city that just a few years ago was the most violent in the world and that now faces a renewed surge of violence, it just doesn’t make sense.”
The latest move by Trump will further test the U.S. relationship with Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who campaigned on a nationalist platform, but so far has managed to avoid a confrontation with Mexico’s northern neighbor by delicately dancing around the dicey migration issue.
“If Mexico suddenly finds itself with a large Central American population in limbo, it will raise questions among Mexicans about their country’s readiness to handle these new arrivals effectively and how far their government should be collaborating in this effort,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, which on Thursday hosted Mexico’s Interior Minister Olga Sanchez Cordero.
Sanchez Cordero called Trump’s policy on the northern border a “unilateral” decision and focused her remarks on what she called Lopez Obrador’s humanitarian approach of providing temporary visas to incoming migrants at its southern border.
Since mid-January, she said, more than 13,500 Central American migrants have registered in a “safe, orderly and regulated” fashion. The vast majority have stayed in Mexico. In fact, she projects as many as 700,000 Central Americans, including Nicaraguans, could end up migrating to Mexico each year because of a lack of economic opportunities in Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle.
“People migrate not because they want to, but because of necessity,” said Sanchez Cordero, according to her remarks in an audiotape provided by the institute.
Selee called Lopez Obrador’s approach a “bit of a schizophrenic approach — providing greater access to Central Americans to get into Mexico legally but working with the U.S. government to make it much harder for them to cross into the United States.”
“So far, it doesn’t look like a coordinated strategy but a series of isolated measures from different parts of the Mexican government,” he said.
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