Students at a newly constructed classroom in the Alabanzas al Rey migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez work on assignments on Nov. 19. Many migrant families who were living in Juárez under the Migrant Protection Protocols or "Remain in Mexico" policy have seen their court dates delayed for months due to the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Juan Pablo de Anda de Alva)

The safety of El Paso and border communities will be a priority as asylum seekers who had been trapped in Mexico are allowed to enter the United States, senior United Nations officials said in a press briefing on Thursday. 

Migrants who have been awaiting hearings and determinations in their asylum cases reacted with joy last week at the announcement that Biden would end the contentious Trump-era Migrant protection protocols policy, commonly referred to as “Remain in Mexico.” 

But now begins the complex process of undoing the policy: accounting for the estimated 26,000 people with active cases, many of whom have been exposed to severe trauma in the time they’ve awaited an asylum decision in cities of northern Mexico. 

“It sounds really great on paper and is a promising start,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. She expressed tempered optimism for the plans, accompanied by concern that a process like this is necessarily difficult, particularly when dealing with extremely vulnerable people. 

“There is an urgent need to address the situation of the many people affected by MPP policy,” said a senior UN official who discussed the plan for processing MPP cases at three locations along the southern border of the United States, including the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez metroplex. The official spoke to the media on the condition that they not be identified by name.

The asylum seekers in MPP are pursuing a legal pathway to entering the United States. The United States has an obligation to protect people who qualify as refugees under both international and domestic law, including the United Nations Refugee Convention and the 1980 Refugee Act.

Comprehensive COVID-19 testing 

COVID-19 testing will be done for all immigrants 24 to 48 hours before they cross into the United States at specified staging locations in Mexico. They will first be given an antigen COVID-19 test, which takes approximately one hour to deliver results. If they have a positive result, then they will be given a PCR test. In cases of positive results to this second test, they will be quarantined for 10 days, UN officials said. 

“The safety and health of all involved is paramount. That includes safety and health of the local communities on both sides of the border; it includes all the officials facilitating the process, and of course it involves the safety of the asylum seekers themselves,” an official said. 

The International Organization for Migration will cover the costs of testing, which will be administered by local laboratories with which the United Nations has agreements. 

“Getting people out of MPP is a priority for this administration, but we’re also still in the middle of a pandemic,” Rivas said. “There’s a way to do it correctly, and I think this is a really good faith attempt of trying to get it right for all involved.”

Vulnerable populations will be fast-tracked

For those who have active MPP cases, an online registration platform will open soon, but officials cautioned that the order in which people register has no bearing on the order with which their cases will be processed. Instead, the order of processing will be determined both by the length of time people have been waiting, and by their potential vulnerability to harm.

“There is a process to fast track persons that have urgency to cross,” a UN official said. “The U.S. government is in the process of finalizing what will be the vulnerability criteria, which … is based on principles such as age, health conditions, victims of crime and victims of trauma,” the official said. 

Rivas expressed concern about potential access issues for an online process. 

“We know that our clients will and do have access to the internet, but what about the people that can’t access a group like ours or don’t have an attorney?” Rivas asked. 

Processing of active cases will begin in San Ysidro, California, on Friday, but won’t start in El Paso until Feb. 26, Los Angeles Times reporter Molly O’Toole said on Twitter, quoting Department of Homeland Security officials. Shelters on the northern side of the border and humanitarian organizations are preparing to receive immigrants from MPP, including Annunciation House in El Paso. 

Cover photo: Children sent to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols studied at a classroom in the Alabanzas al Rey migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez in November. (Photo courtesy of Juan Pablo de Anda de Alva)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.