MATAMOROS, Mexico — When the Supreme Court effectively revived a cornerstone of Trump-era migration policy late last month, it looked like a major defeat for President Biden.
After all, Mr. Biden had condemned the policy — whereby asylum seekers in Mexico must wait — as “inhumane” and suspended it on its first day in office, as part of an aggressive effort to enforce former President Donald J. Trump’s strictest migration policies. to dismantle.
But among some Biden officials, the Supreme Court order was quietly greeted with something other than dismay, current and former officials said: It brought some relief.
Before that ruling, Mr. Biden’s steps to let go of the reins on migration were quickly followed by a wave of people moving north and flooding the United States’ southwestern border. Fears of migrants reached a two-decade high in July, a trend that officials say will continue into the fall.
Concerns had already arisen within the Biden administration that the speed of immigration changes has prompted migrants to flock to the United States, current and former officials said.
Some Biden officials have even talked about reviving Mr Trump’s policies in a limited way to deter migration, said the officials, who have worked on immigration policy but were not authorized to speak publicly about it. the government’s internal debates on the issue. Then came the Supreme Court order, giving the Biden administration the political cover to pass the policy in one form or another without arousing so much anger from the Democrats who taunted Mr Trump’s border policies.
Now, the officials say, they have a chance to step back, come up with a more humane version of Mr Trump’s policies and, they hope, reduce the sheer number of people arriving at the border. .
“This desire to reverse Trump’s policies and do it quickly has put the Biden administration in this predicament, which was not unpredictable and very sad to see,” said Alan Bersin, who served as commissioner under President Barack. of US Customs and Border Protection. Obama.
The policy at the heart of the case — commonly known as Remain in Mexico — quickly became one of the most controversial elements of Trump’s immigration agenda as it turned the central provisions of the national asylum system on its head. Rather than let migrants into the United States while the courts reviewed their claims, it had thousands of asylum seekers waiting in squalid Mexico camps filled with reports of kidnappings, extortion and other serious abuses.
After Mr Biden suspended the policy, Texas and Missouri sued the government, arguing that the influx of people “imposed serious and ongoing burdens” on the states. The Supreme Court refused to block a lower court’s ruling requiring the program’s reinstatement, forcing the Biden administration to abide by it as the appeals process unfolds.
But the ambivalence in the corners of the Biden administration reflects a broader concern: that the border crisis could have electoral ramifications for Democrats, potentially pushing through the doomed hopes of a more sweeping overhaul of the country’s migration and asylum systems.
“They are being cornered on their broader immigration agenda,” Doris Meissner, the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, said of the Biden administration. “The only tools available in the short term are pretty much pure enforcement.”
After taking office, Mr. Biden not only allowed migrants to apply for asylum in the United States, but he also refused to immediately deport unaccompanied children and moved to freeze deportations.
As migrants flocked to the border, Republicans attacked the new administration on multiple fronts, forcing the president to back off on key campaign promises and angering some in his base.
Mr Biden, in turn, has leaned on Mexico and Central America to ramp up their own border enforcement. But the efforts have failed to meaningfully curb flows northward and have led to violent attacks on migrants by law enforcement officers in those countries.
While the government tried to change the welcome tone it set at the beginning by sending Vice President Kamala Harris to Guatemala to declare the border closed in June, migrants and smugglers say the encouraging signs sent at the start of Biden’s tenure were sent are the only thing everyone remembers.
“‘We heard the news that the US has opened its borders,'” said Abraham Barberi, a pastor in the border town of Matamoros, who tells what migrants routinely tell him. So many people came to town that Mr. Barberi turned his church into a migrant shelter shortly after Mr. Biden arrived at the office, when mothers and their toddlers began showing up at his door.
“The Biden administration said, ‘We’re going to let people in,'” Mr. Barberi said, zigzagging between the thin mattresses that now cover the church floors. “Then everyone flooded.”
Thousands of asylum seekers were gradually let into the United States after Biden ended Trump’s policy of forcing them to wait in Mexico, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks migration records. But almost immediately, Mr Barberi said, a flood of new migrants showed up.
So Mr. Barberi crammed dozens of bunk beds into Bible school classrooms and filled shelves with diapers, baby food, and medicines. If the Stay in Mexico policy returns, Mr. Barbieri said, “A lot of people will get stuck here.”
Among them is Marilin Lopéz, who fled Honduras in 2019 with her son after receiving constant death threats. When she arrived in Mexico, she said, a trafficker handed her over to gunmen who had held her hostage for months. After devising the ransom and eventually reaching the border, she said, she ran into two of her captors in Matamoros and went into hiding, preventing her from showing up for some of her asylum appointments.
Under Mr Trump, the United States granted asylum to less than 2 percent of all applicants under the Remain in Mexico policy, according to the Syracuse University clearinghouse. Most people denied asylum missed court dates, such as Ms. Lopéz, who was too terrified to walk around Matamoros, a town the State Department is warning Americans against visiting for “crime and kidnapping.”
In late August, after the Biden administration said it would reopen some of those cases, Ms. Lopéz again asked for her claim for protection.
Days later, Ms. Lopéz received a text message from United Nations representatives assisting her petition: All cases were on hold as they await clarity following the Supreme Court decision.
“They have destroyed all our hopes,” said Ms. Lopéz. “The Biden administration has promised many things, and now we feel cheated.”
It’s not yet clear exactly how the Biden administration will respond to the Supreme Court ruling, though officials in the United States and Mexico say talks about implementing a new version of Remain in Mexico have already begun.
Roberto Velasco, Mexico’s foreign ministry chief officer for North America, said in a statement that the Supreme Court will not dictate Mexico’s migration policies, “which are determined and implemented with sovereignty.”
Mexico recently suggested forming a working group with the United States, Mr Velasco said, “to manage the extraordinary flows both countries are seeing.” He said Mexico would oppose any step to reopen camps along the border — a move that would be politically challenging in the United States as well. When Dr. Jill Biden toured the Matamoros camp in 2019, she described it as heartbreaking.
“I have witnessed the pain of refugees around the world, but seeing it at our own frontier felt like betrayal,” said Dr. Biden. said in a Twitter post after the visit, adding, “This cruelty is not who we are.”