As migrants flock to border, court hands Biden lifeline

MATAMOROS, Mexico – When the Supreme Court did revive 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 – which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico – as “inhumane” and suspended it on day one in office, as part of an aggressive campaign to dismantle the toughest migration policies of former President Donald J. Trump. .

But among some Biden officials, the Supreme Court order has been quietly greeted with more than dismay, current and former officials said: It has brought some relief.

Prior to the move, Mr. Biden’s steps to begin loosening the reins of migration were quickly followed by a wave of people heading north, crushing the southwestern border of the United States. Migrant apprehensions peaked in two decades in July, a trend officials fear will continue until the fall.

The Biden administration was already concerned that the speed of its immigration changes had encouraged migrants to flock to the United States, current and former officials said.

In fact, some Biden officials were already talking about reviving Mr. Trump’s policy in limited ways to deter migration, said officials, who worked on immigration policy but were not allowed to speak publicly about the debates. internal administration on the matter. Then the Supreme Court order arrived, providing the Biden administration with the political cover to pass the policy in one form or another without provoking as much anger from Democrats who vilified Mr. Trump.

Now, officials say, they have the opportunity to step back, come up with a more humane version of Mr. Trump’s policies and, they hope, reduce the huge number of people arriving at the border.

“This desire to reverse Trump’s policies and do it quickly put the Biden administration in this predicament, which was not unpredictable and is very sad to watch,” said Alan Bersin, who served as commissioner of United States Customs and Border Protection under President Barack. Obama.

The policy at the heart of the matter – commonly referred to as Stay in Mexico – quickly became one of the most controversial elements of Mr. Trump’s immigration program, as it upended the central provisions of the country’s asylum system. . Instead of allowing migrants to enter the United States while courts assessed their claims, it kept thousands of asylum seekers waiting in squalid settlements in Mexico, plagued by reports of kidnappings, extortion and other serious abuses.

After Mr. Biden suspended politics, Texas and Missouri sued the administration, arguing that the influx of people “placed severe and lasting burdens” on the states. The Supreme Court refused to block a lower court ruling that called for the program to be reinstated, forcing the Biden administration to comply while the appeal process unfolds.

But the ambivalence within the Biden administration reflects a broader concern: that the border crisis could have electoral repercussions for Democrats, potentially damaging hopes of pushing through a more significant overhaul of the country’s migration and asylum systems. country.

“They are stuck in their larger immigration program,” said Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, of the Biden administration. “The only tools available in the short term are pretty much the pure application. “

After taking office, Biden not only allowed migrants to seek asylum in the United States, but he also refused to immediately deport unaccompanied children and decided to freeze deportations.

As migrants flocked to the border, Republicans attacked the new administration on multiple fronts, forcing the president to back down from major campaign pledges and angering some in his base.

Mr. Biden in turn relied on Mexico and Central America to strengthen their own border controls. But the efforts did not significantly slow down flows to the north, and they led to violent attacks on migrants by law enforcement in those countries.

As the administration tried to change the tone of welcome it set from the start, sending Vice President Kamala Harris to Guatemala to proclaim the border closed in June, migrants and smugglers say the encouraging signals sent at the start of Mr. Biden’s tenure are all that is remembered.

“We have heard that the United States has opened the borders,” said Abraham Barberi, pastor of the border town of Matamoros, recounting what migrants regularly tell him. So many people came to town that Mr Barberi turned his church into a migrant shelter shortly after Mr Biden came to power, as mothers and their little ones began to show up at his doorstep.

“The Biden administration has said, ‘We’re going to let people in,’” Mr. Barberi said, zigzagging between the thin mattresses that now cover the church floor. “That’s when everyone flooded.”

Thousands of asylum seekers were gradually admitted to the United States after Mr Biden ended Trump’s policy of forcing them to wait in Mexico, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, that tracks migration data. But almost immediately, Mr Barberi said, a flood of new migrants presented themselves.

So Mr. Barberi crammed dozens of bunk beds into Bible school classrooms and filled the shelves with diapers, formula, and medicine. If the Stay in Mexico policy returns, Mr. Barberi said, “we’re going to have a lot of people stuck here.”

Among them is Marilin Lopéz, who fled Honduras with her son in 2019 after receiving constant death threats. When she arrived in Mexico, she said, a trafficker handed her over to gunmen who held her hostage for months. After collecting the ransom and finally reaching the border, she said, she encountered two of her captors in Matamoros and went into hiding, leaving her unable to show up for some of her asylum appointments.

Under Mr. Trump, the United States has granted asylum to less than 2% of all applicants under the Stay in Mexico policy, according to the Syracuse University information center. Most of those denied asylum missed court appointments, such as Ms Lopéz, who was too terrified to wander around Matamoros, a town the State Department is warning Americans against. any visit because of “crimes and kidnappings”.

At the end of August, after the Biden administration announced that it would reopen some of these cases, Ms Lopéz reiterated her request for protection.

A few days later, Ms Lopéz received a text message from United Nations officials accompanying her in her request: all cases were on hold pending the clarity of the Supreme Court’s decision.

“They have killed all our hopes,” Ms. Lopéz said. “The Biden government has promised a lot of things, and now we feel cheated.”

It is not yet clear exactly how the Biden administration will react to the Supreme Court’s ruling, although officials in the United States and Mexico say talks about implementing a new version of Remain in Mexico have already started.

Roberto Velasco, director general of Mexico’s foreign ministry for North America, said in a statement that the Supreme Court would not dictate Mexico’s migration policy, “which is determined and executed with sovereignty.”

Mexico recently offered to form a working group with the United States, Velasco said, “to deal with the extraordinary flows that the two countries are experiencing.” He said Mexico would oppose any move to reopen encampments along the border – a move that would also be politically difficult in the United States. When Dr Jill Biden visited Matamoros camp in 2019, she described it as heartbreaking.

“I have witnessed the pain of refugees across the world, but seeing it at our own border felt like betrayal,” Dr Biden said. said in a Twitter post after the visit, adding: “This cruelty is not who we are.”

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