Welcome back to El Faro English.
Central America, in Brief: Seven months into Biden’s term, the administration is considering reinstating Remain in Mexico and is ramping up Title 42 border expulsions. The future of DACA and TPS recipients also remains in limbo as Congress stalls on immigration reform.
Remain in Mexico and Border Expulsions
In January, Biden immediately followed through on a campaign promise when he suspended Remain in Mexico, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), that sent asylum seekers to await their cases in Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) then officially disbanded the program in June. Then, on August 13, a judge in Texas ordered the administration to begin the program again, citing violations to administrative and immigration law. This week, a court denied the Biden administration’s request to halt the ruling during the appeal process, forcing the government to comply unless it decides to make a case to the Supreme Court.
VICE News recently reported that administration officials have been discussing officially bringing back the program, which according to numerous reports not only violated international laws but also exposed asylum seekers to rape, extortion, and kidnappings in dangerous Mexican border cities. The officials claim they would implement the program in a “humane” way that offers food and shelter —in Mexico— to these asylum seekers.
Even without MPP in place —for now— most migrants and asylum seekers are still being turned back at the border. Biden has repeatedly extended the Title 42 policy that allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants on public health grounds, allowing one of Trump’s anti-immigration policies to continue. Biden didn’t commit to terminating Title 42 in his official immigration campaign platform, but pledged to “end the mismanagement of the asylum system, which fuels violence and chaos at the border.” Before becoming Vice President, Kamala Harris signed a letter that called the policy a “power grab” without legal precedent.
The Biden administration was in negotiations with the ACLU to end the order while a court challenge is ongoing, but the discussions recently fell apart. Biden officials have defended the policy as necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of new COVID-19 cases are due to unvaccinated Americans and not recent migrants.
In late July, DHS announced it had resumed flights to Central America to migrants subjected to expedited removal. The migrants cannot be expelled under Title 42, which a court determined cannot be applied to unaccompanied minors, and do not have a legal basis to stay in the United States, according to the DHS statement.
In early August, AP reported that the administration —in an increasingly common form of transnational anti-immigrant coordination — began flying Central Americans to southern Mexico near the Guatemalan border to deter multiple crossings. Many arrive at the Guatemalan border in El Ceibo in the remote northeastern department Petén, overwhelming the local shelters. There will be 24 flights a month, reports AP.
These policies represent a continuation of Trump’s policies, according to Patricia Montes, director of Boston-based immigrant rights organization Centro Presente. “There are still human rights violations at the border,” she told El Faro English. “There’s no form of protection for people who look for asylum.”
Biden promised to end Trump’s “detrimental asylum policies” and his administration has made some moves to follow through with specific promises.
In June, Attorney General Merrick Garland completed a Biden campaign promise when he reversed a ruling that determined people fleeing gang violence or domestic violence were ineligible for asylum, a decision with major implications for Central American asylum seekers. He also announced changes in the process of appealing asylum cases.
“This decision by Garland will make it possible for asylum seekers to have better probability of winning their cases,” lawyer for the Association of Salvadorans in Los Angeles (ASOSAL), Fernando Romo, told EFE in July. “It’s a victory that along with previous ones is overcoming the path of obstacles that Trump and his prosecutors put up.”
The Biden administration has also given a second chance to seek protection in the U.S. to some asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras who were sent to Guatemala under a “Safe Third Country” agreement, which Biden suspended in February as promised.
The administration has also moved to address a backlog of immigration cases that surpassed one million under Trump by taking a step that was not laid out in its platform. On August 18, DHS announced a proposal for asylum officers, not immigration judges, to decide some asylum cases, in an attempt to speed up the process and chip away at the immigration court backlog. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the change will more quickly provide relief to those who qualify and remove those who don’t.
But some immigrant advocates are skeptical. “While improving the way asylum cases are processed is necessary to increase fairness and reduce inefficiencies, the administration must do so in a way that ensures the due process rights and protection of asylum seekers and ensures that any changes cannot be used and abused by future administrations to undermine asylum protections,” stated advocacy group Human Rights First.
Pathways to Legal Migration
Perhaps Biden’s biggest campaign promise —and one made by many politicians for more than 20 years— was immigration reform that includes legalizing the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, new opportunities for legal migration, and pathways to citizenship for TPS and DACA recipients.
In March, the Biden administration restarted a program to resettle select minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with parents in the U.S. through the Central American Minors (CAM) program, which Trump shut down. Then, in July, DHS announced it was expanding the eligibility requirements for the program so more would qualify.
Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and nine countries has been extended for now, but will expire in October. Advocates continue to lobby for a long-term solution to allow beneficiaries to stay in the country. DACA recipients are also in limbo after a July ruling by a federal judge in Texas that prevents the Biden administration from processing new applications. Biden has called on Congress to issue a permanent solution for DACA recipients.
Biden hasn’t gone far enough, according to Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, an immigrant rights group with offices in the United States and Central America. The president could use his executive power to issue new TPS designations for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua given the impact of COVID, recent natural disasters, and ongoing corruption and violence, but has not done so.
It boils down to a political calculation that Chacón says erroneously assumes policies that benefit migrants and asylum seekers have a high political cost.
The called-for changes —as well as other more profound changes to the immigration system and U.S. foreign policy towards Central America— would require political capital, Montes agrees. But the administration and the Democratic party are not willing to use it, she said. “There has been a change in discourse,” Montes said. “But in practice, there is still much to do.”