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US sends first migrants to Mexico under ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Migrants under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program are delivered by agents of the US Border Patrol to agents of the National Migration Institute of Mexico, in El Paso, Texas, the US, on December 8, 2021. (Photo by Reuters)

The United States has returned the first migrants to Mexico under a reinstated policy that allows officials to send non-Mexican migrants to that country to await their US immigration court hearings.

The US President Joe Biden administration, restarting a former President Donald Trump-era program to remove asylum seekers from US soil, sent two men back to Mexico at a border crossing in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, on Wednesday, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Mexico.

Last week, the US and Mexican governments announced that they had reached an agreement to re-launch the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico.”

The IOM said the two people were given COVID-19 tests once they entered Mexico, and that IOM representatives took them to a shelter in Ciudad Juarez that had been approved by US and Mexican authorities.

The US Homeland Security Department confirmed that returns had begun at one location and would be expanded to six others. It declined to identify the launch city or how many migrants will be processed, citing “operational security reasons.”

The Mexican Foreign Ministry said last week that the program’s reinstatement was conditional on the US offering COVID-19 vaccines to asylum seekers and expanded exemptions, such as for those with physical and mental health challenges.

The US has pledged to try to complete cases within six months for each asylum applicant, a response to Mexico’s concerns that applicants will languish in a court system that is backlogged with 1.5 million cases.

Under the MPP, which was first put in place by Trump in 2019, some 70,000 asylum seekers, including children, lived in squalid camps for months, and even years, in border towns in Mexico, where they became susceptible to cartel violence.

According to the charity group Human Rights First, there have been more than 1,500 publicly reported cases of kidnapping, rape, torture, and other crimes against the migrants returned to Mexico.

Biden pledged to end the MPP program on his first day in office and began the process of admitting those migrants who had previously been subject to it. But federal courts in two US states, Texas and Missouri, sued the administration, saying the policy was terminated improperly and ordered the MPP reinstated in August.

The policy effectively brought the asylum system to a halt. It was heavily criticized by rights groups describing it as “inhumane and contrary to international law.”

Amid rising poverty, crime, and political instability in Central America and other countries in the region, many people have been attempting to reach the United State via Mexico. The number of asylum seekers arriving at the US-Mexico border has reached record highs in recent months. During the last fiscal year, US authorities detained 1.7 million people trying to cross into the country.

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