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The Trump-era immigration policy 'Remain in Mexico' is ending

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Department of Homeland Security says it's committed to ending the Remain in Mexico immigration policy in what it says will be a quick and orderly way. A long federal court battle ended Monday when a judge lifted his injunction. The Trump-era policy required thousands of asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico until their court hearings in the U.S. So what does this mean for migrants on the southern border and for future immigration policies? Aaron Reichlin-Melnick is the policy director of the American Immigration Council. Aaron, what can asylum-seekers expect in the short term?

AARON REICHLIN-MELNICK: In the short term, the Department of Homeland Security has said that for the roughly 4,000 to 5,000 people that were returned under the restarted program that began in December, those individuals will be allowed to reenter the country on the date of their next court hearings and seek asylum in safety from inside the United States, not in dangerous conditions in northern Mexico.

MARTINEZ: So just to be clear, they can stay in the United States while this process is happening.

REICHLIN-MELNICK: That's right.

MARTINEZ: OK. So what about - there were 70,000 migrants under President Trump who were subjected to this policy. What happened to them?

REICHLIN-MELNICK: Most of those individuals already had their cases terminated before the Biden administration suspended the program in January 2021. During 2021, the Biden administration brought about 13,000 of those people back to the United States who still had pending cases and allowed them also to seek safety. But now, about three years after the program first began, we really don't know what'd happened to those who didn't get in during that first wind-down process. Some of them may still be in Mexico. Some may have gone back to their home countries. And some may have entered the United States across the border and be living in the country undocumented.

MARTINEZ: Now, critics of the policy said it was inhumane. So what did asylum-seekers risk by staying in Mexico?

REICHLIN-MELNICK: Under the Remain in Mexico program, people were essentially forced to run a gauntlet of kidnappers just to make it to the courthouse door. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of documented instances of cases where people were ordered removed, ordered deported and lost their cases for missing court when they were in the arms of their kidnappers at the time and being held for ransom. There are thousands of instances of publicly documented cases of violence, assaults, kidnapping, rapes and even murders against people that the United States sent back under the Remain in Mexico program. So for those put into this program, which was formerly called the Migrant Protection Protocol, there was no protection offered. It was simply throwing people to the lion's den.

MARTINEZ: Now, Remain in Mexico may be over. Title 42, though, remains. That's the public health order that Donald Trump invoked to stop migrants at the border and in some cases send them back to the country they're from. Aaron, does Title 42 effectively keep the spirit of Trump's administration's immigration policies firmly in place?

REICHLIN-MELNICK: For the last two years, the Remain in Mexico program has really been a minor side program compared to Title 42. Less than 1% of people being encountered at the border since December were sent back to Mexico under Remain in Mexico. By contrast, since March of 2020, CBP agents have carried out more than 2.2 million Title 42 expulsions. And for some groups such as Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran nationals, at times upwards of 90% of people crossing have been expelled back to Mexico. Though, for other groups, like Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan refugees, Title 42 is largely impossible to use on them. And barely any of them are subject to the program because Mexico won't take those individuals and neither will their home countries. But the biggest impact for asylum-seekers with Title 42 has been the closure of the ports of entry to most people. That meant that anyone who wanted to seek asylum over the last two years was effectively forced to cross the border between ports of entry, exactly what we should be incentivizing.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. The asylum claims don't need to be heard under 42, right?

REICHLIN-MELNICK: That's right. A person who is expelled under Title 42 is completely denied any chance to seek asylum as compared to the Remain in Mexico program, where at least there was a fig leaf of a chance to seek protection.

MARTINEZ: And just to be clear, it's - U.S. law guarantees the right to seek asylum. So 42 completely goes against that.

REICHLIN-MELNICK: That's right. And in fact, a federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled that it was actually a violation of our laws and international treaties to expel people to a country to which they would be persecuted and ordered that the certain family members who were subject to expulsions have at least a right to claim that they would be persecuted in the country to which they'd be expelled, giving them a chance for some minimal asylum screenings. But even those screenings are far less than what are normally offered under U.S. law.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, we could probably talk about this for a long time, but we got about a minute left. What would you say are the biggest priorities for the United States immigration policy right now to fix or to maybe iron out?

REICHLIN-MELNICK: We are now multiple years into an unprecedented time of mass displacement and refugee flows. But the laws with which we're responding to this crisis are outdated and flawed. We last updated our legal immigration system 32 years ago in 1990, before the first website even went online. And the last time we overhauled our asylum system was 1996. In other words, we're facing a 21st-century challenge with 20th-century laws. Now, some people say we can simply crack down harder, build the wall, send everyone back to Mexico and wash our hands of asylum. But the history of the last century shows us that it's only long-term solutions which truly reduce migration, like addressing root causes and expanding legal pathways to migrate.

MARTINEZ: Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council. Aaron, thanks.

REICHLIN-MELNICK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.