WASHINGTON — Mexico has agreed to allow the United States to restart a controversial Trump-era asylum program requiring certain migrants to wait in Mexico while their cases are pending, boosting the Biden administration’s efforts to rolling back the former president’s restrictive immigration policies.
The Biden administration, which announced the deal on Thursday, has sought to end the program, which has been labeled dangerous and inhumane by US officials and advocacy groups. But it has been forced to restart on a court order, and that will require the cooperation of the Mexican government, which has been hesitant to do so with no commitments to address humanitarian issues.
Roberto Velasco Álvarez, head of the Mexican Foreign Ministry’s North American unit, said Mexico had agreed to restart the program, commonly known as Remain in Mexico and formally as Migrant Protection Protocols, after the Biden administration agreed on a number of steps to improve humanitarian conditions at the border, such as providing vaccines for migrants. Unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable asylum seekers are not included in the programme.
“The United States accepted all those concerns and made changes to the program accordingly,” said Mr. Velasco.
The Remain in Mexico program will apply to migrants who cannot deport the United States under a public health rule it introduced at the start of the pandemic.
Ending the program was an early goal for President Biden as he attempted to rebuild an asylum system that had been largely dismantled under Mr Trump. Its resumption creates the challenge of gaining cooperation from legal attorneys and humanitarian groups, many of whom have already said they would not participate due to continued opposition to Mr Biden’s immigration policies. The Trump administration relied heavily on these groups to help migrants waiting in Mexico.
Republicans credit the program with curbing illegal migration under Trump, but critics say it forced migrants to stay in unsanitary tent camps where they faced sexual assault, kidnapping, torture and harsh weather.
The administration hopes the groups will change their minds or that new organizations will step in to help, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Other changes to the program include limiting immigration procedures to six months per asylum seeker. During the Trump administration, the Remain in Mexico affairs sometimes dragged on for years. According to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at the University of Syracuse, there are more than 25,000 pending asylum applications from people affected by the program. Of the cases settled to date, only 1.6 percent of asylum seekers were granted asylum.
US officials also promised Mexico they would improve access to counsel for migrants who fear they would face persecution if forced to stay in Mexico while their asylum case was pending.
The changes to the program did not satisfy the critics. “This is a disaster waiting to happen,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy adviser at the American Immigration Council, wrote in a Twitter post Thursday.
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the Secretary of Homeland Security, has said so himself.
“I have concluded that there are inherent problems with the program that no amount of resources can adequately solve,” he wrote in a justification for the program’s termination, which was released in late October.
The Trump administration launched the program in early 2019 as one of several attempts to restrict who can apply for asylum in the United States.
The Biden administration stopped taking applications for the program the day after Mr. Biden’s inauguration, delivering on a campaign promise. But Missouri and Texas filed a lawsuit to restore it, and Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas supported them, ruling in August that the government’s seven-page justification for ending the program was “arbitrary and erratic.”
The administration appealed, but the Supreme Court in August refused to block the order. The government then reluctantly took steps to restart the program, with the biggest hurdle to Mexico cooperating.
In October, the administration submitted a new, more detailed justification for ending the program; a motion is pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. The Department of Homeland Security said Thursday that if the appeals court sided with the administration, it would immediately terminate the program.
The program also faced judicial challenges during the Trump administration.
Since Mr Biden took office, the United States has seen a spike in the number of migrants — many from Central America — entering the United States illegally. The government has mainly used an obscure public health rule known as Title 42 to quickly roll back most such crossers during the pandemic. But for various reasons, it has not been adopted across the board.
In October, for example, US officials used the rule just 57 percent of the time to reject migrants who had illegally crossed the border, according to government data.
Of the migrants who were not deported that month under the public health ordinance, half came from Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — countries that typically will not repatriate their citizens.
The resumption of the Remain in Mexico program, which begins on Monday, will add another option for migrants who cannot be deported under Title 42.
Mexico’s decision comes the same week the United States agreed to launch a joint development program in Central America that influenced Mexico’s decision, although Mr Velasco said “it is not in return”. The program aims to tackle the root causes of migration, starting in Honduras.
“It’s part of what Mexico has also asked for, which is to accelerate cooperation efforts in Central America,” he added.