By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Biden administration and Mexico have not yet agreed to restart a Trump-era program obliging asylum seekers to await U.S. court hearings in Mexico, because certain conditions must first be met, two Mexican officials said on Wednesday.
News outlet Axios reported earlier that returns under the program officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) could restart as soon as next week. But one of the Mexican officials said agreement was unlikely to be reached this week.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a statement it was working to resume the program “as promptly as possible” but could not do so without Mexico’s agreement.
The two Mexican government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said talks were ongoing to determine under what terms the United States could begin returns.
Mexico is insisting Washington provide more support against COVID-19 for migrants, such as vaccinations, more legal aid for asylum seekers, and acceleration of hearings for those taking part in the returns program, one senior Mexican official said.
The administration of President Joe Biden, who vowed to undo some of the hardline immigration policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, ended MPP. The scheme makes asylum seekers wait in Mexico for hearings before U.S. immigration judges.
But a federal judge ordered the administration to restart the program, saying it had failed to follow proper regulatory procedure. The U.S. Supreme Court in August rejected an administration appeal against the lower court’s ruling.
Late last month, the administration tried again to end the program, hoping to address the judge’s concerns. But it also said it was moving to comply with the court’s order.
Biden has been under political and humanitarian pressure on the immigration issue because of an increase in migrants at the U.S. border.
Immigration advocates argue the MPP program exposed migrants to violence and kidnappings in dangerous border cities, where people camped out for months or years waiting for U.S. hearings.
During bilateral negotiations, Mexico has sought to ensure that new returns are carried out in a more controlled fashion, and that particularly vulnerable migrants and unaccompanied minors are excluded, the Mexican officials said.
The two officials also said Mexico’s government is trying to secure a U.S. commitment to provide additional support for international organizations that help look after migrants and shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border. When MPP was in place under Trump, a sprawling camp arose in the border city of Matamoros in a violence-plagued region of Mexico.
In its report, Axios cited a Homeland Security official as saying the policy would initially be reinstated in El Paso, Texas, Brownsville, Texas, opposite Matamoros, and San Diego.
Axios said the Biden administration would give asylum seekers the option of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Although Biden has sought to reverse some Trump-era immigration measures, he has kept in place a sweeping expulsion policy initiated at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That policy turns most migrants caught crossing the border away without giving them a chance to apply for asylum at all.
(Reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru, Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)