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Commentary Immigration

Opinion: ‘Remain in Mexico’ violates international law and hurts migrant communities along the border

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By Joan Rosenhauer and Conrado Zepeda

Recent actions taken by the Biden Administration to reimplement the Migrant Protection Protocols program, and the decision by a federal appeals court to reinstate the program, are deeply disappointing and disconcerting. 

Joan Rosenhauer

After taking steps earlier this year to terminate MPP, also known as the “remain in Mexico” policy, the United States and Mexico have reinstated and even expanded a policy that puts thousands of asylum seekers at risk in dangerous conditions in Mexico. Court orders and delays from the administration have meant that, instead of moving quickly to live up to his campaign promise to terminate this Trump-era illegal and inhumane immigration policy, President Biden and his administration are backing away from their commitment to provide safe and equitable access to asylum.

Jesuit Refugee Service in the United States and in Mexico has opposed “remain in Mexico” since the Trump Administration first implemented it for one simple reason: it violates international law, Catholic values, and fundamental human rights. It puts asylum seekers in extremely dangerous situations in Mexico and fails to address the historically complex issue of migration in a humane way. It does nothing to address the problem of migration, and it has made the situation along the U.S. southern border worse. The Biden Administration should do everything in their power and move quickly to terminate it once and for all.

The increase in forced migration all over the world, but particularly across the U.S. southern border, is a direct result of conflating reasons that leave individuals with no option but to leave their country. Some are historical; others are more recent phenomena that have been aggravated in recent years.

Conrado Zepeda

In recent decades, multinational corporations have bet on investing in various regions of Latin America, particularly Central America. While these corporations certainly create jobs for thousands of people, they do not generate enough wealth for local populations. Salaries are meager, the work is physically demanding, and the types of jobs created don’t offer a real path to economic prosperity. In addition, many of these countries are essentially failed states, with illegitimate and corrupt leaders and governments that haven’t administered well the few resources at their disposal.

This reality, coupled with the fact that organized crime and violence are ever-present and uncontrollable, makes having profitable small businesses all but impossible, limiting options for people to work and generate income and wealth for themselves and their families. 

Living conditions in the region have also worsened in recent years due to climate change that has caused periods of heavy rain or severe droughts. Increasingly harsh hurricanes have devastated homes and lands that are the primary source of income of millions of people in Central America. 

The combination of these factors has created a breeding ground of social and political crisis that is forcing millions of people to flee their homelands.

As a result, thousands of people from the region – particularly the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – are entering Mexico every day, looking for a new life after fleeing injustice, violence, or extreme weather. The country has also seen an increase in the arrival of people from Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, Colombia, and Haiti, all of which are experiencing similar socio-economic situations. For many, their ultimate destination is the United States.

In January 2019, the Trump administration started implementing MPP to force immigrants to wait in Mexico in legal limbo. Immediately after the policy was first implemented, the social and economic dynamics along Mexico’s border began to undergo very particular changes. As a result of the policy, too many families have been separated and countless individuals have been forced to live in the extreme weather and difficult social conditions of the Mexican desert. 

According to our research on the impact of MPP, more than 70,000 enrolled in the program faced violence and insecurity while waiting in Mexico. We’ve seen firsthand the adverse impact this policy has had on migrant communities along the border.

With the arrival of President Biden to the White House, many of us had high expectations for a reversal of MPP and a more humane immigration policy. We have been greatly disappointed that the new president has failed to bring an end to the systematic violation of migrant human rights on both sides of the border and has even expanded it with support from the government of Mexico. 

Moreover, the administration has also continued upholding Title 42, another Trump-era policy that has wreaked havoc on migrant communities. Under Title 42, asylum seekers are denied the opportunity to even petition for asylum and are immediately expelled to areas that are under the control of organized crime, at the mercy of drug lords and cartels. 

As Mexico has increasingly militarized its migration response efforts, local Mexican human rights organizations, civil society, and refugee advocacy organizations are the only entities promoting structural and policy changes to help create a better environment for migrants across the border in Mexico.

The Biden administration’s Department of Homeland Security argues that security and legal enhancements have improved MPP, differentiating it from Trump’s policy. Let’s be clear: there is no “better” MPP in any way, shape, or form. The very idea of denying people their right to seek asylum humanely and safely violates international law and human rights. 

The Biden administration should be working effectively and expeditiously to end this harmful policy so that they can quickly process individuals currently enrolled in the program out of it, transfer them to other dockets within the United States, and allow them to wait in safety in the United States.

We must remember that migrants and refugees are a source of cultural and economic wealth, which gives us new opportunities to improve our living conditions. Migrants and refugees, as were our ancestors, are a source of progress and well-being for all. 

Mexico and the United States can be inclusive, caring, hospitable, and just. We can start by returning to the values of “welcoming the stranger” that have historically characterized the United States and ending the inhumane Trump-era policies that have only tainted the United States’ image abroad, wreaked havoc on migrant communities along the border, and had tragic effects on the lives of countless families and individuals.

Joan Rosenhauer is executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and Conrado Zepeda is director of Jesuit Refugee Service/Mexico.

Cover photo: A Migrant Protection Protocols enrollee questions a Border Patrol agent while waiting to be cleared for entry to Mexico on the Stanton Street bridge in early December. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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