‘This doesn’t have to be a crisis’: Advocates prepare for U.S. rollback of MPP program

Immigration

Migrants in 'Remain in Mexico' are cautiously optimistic they will be allowed to join relatives in U.S.; Mexico still leery that some will misunderstand Biden initiative

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Lisbel Chavez has learned to temper his hopes after nearly two years waiting in Juarez, Mexico for a resolution to his asylum claim in the United States.

The native of Cuba has heard rumors before that he and thousands of others in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program will be granted access to the United States now that Joe Biden is in the White House. But the last time he checked on his case his next hearing had been moved from February to June.

On Friday, however, he allowed himself some hope.

“I think we have a good chance now,” he said. “I’ve been in Juarez for two years, working in this (Mexican restaurant) and I’m getting desperate. Let’s hope it’s true. Let’s hope they let us in time.”

The Department of Homeland Security on Friday confirmed it’s phasing out the MPP program beginning on Feb. 19. That means asylum-seekers like Chavez will be allowed into the United States while their cases are ongoing. Details of how that will happen, however, are still not clear.

“The first action the Biden administration took was to end MPP. That means there will be no new enrollments. But now, we’re figuring out how people who have been waiting in Mexico, some for up to two years, are going to be paroled into the United States,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.

Migrant shelters on both sides of the border were filled in late 2018 with the mass arrival of refugees from Central America and other parts of the world. Things got worse after the Trump administration implemented MPP and sent thousands back to Mexico even as thousands more approached the border.

President Trump strong-armed Mexico into preventing any more migrant caravans from Central America to proceed north, and lengthy immigration court delays in the U.S. prompted many in Mexico to pack up and go back to their countries.

But thousands remain in Juarez and other Mexican border cities, eking out a living and laying low to avoid becoming crime victims.

“There is a lot of crime here. You are in danger all of the time,” said Marcelo Benitez, who arrived in Mexico 15 months ago.

He left Cuba after government officials seized tools he used to manufacture and sell windows. He said government officials told him he could not have a business of his own and fined him. Now he hopes to join his son, who’s been in the United States for the past 11 years.

Marcelo Benitez, a Cuban asylum seeker from Buenavista, Cuba. (photo by Roberto Delgado/Special to Border Report)

“We have new options with (Biden). We are waiting for the (U.S.) government to let us in. My plans are to work and be in a safe place, in a country with a true rule of law,” said Benitez, who’s just making enough money for food and rent by working in a Downtown Juarez barbershop.

El Paso advocates as well as government officials in Juarez say they’re waiting for details from Washington, D.C., and Mexico City, respectively, as to how asylum seekers will be allowed into the United States.

Last time, the Migrant Assistance Center in Juarez worked in tandem with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to inform migrants about the asylum process, pre-screen applicants and check their documents.

This time, migrants will have to communicate electronically with the U.S. government. Migrant Assistance Center officials say they can provide access to computers and respond to requests for help from the asylum-seeker.

Enrique Valenzuela, head of the Chihuahua Population Council that runs the center, said Juarez officials are already fielding calls from migrants who don’t quite understand what is changing on Feb. 19.

“We’re getting calls asking us, ‘where do I need to go?’ It’s not yet time to approach the ports of entry. This is just a different phase. People should wait for official information,” Valenzuela said. “New (refugees) should not come to the border because the United States is still enforcing Title 42. This is for people who already solicited asylum, have an ongoing process and have not been turned down.”

Title 42 is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection to expel unauthorized migrants as soon as possible to prevent cross-border spread of COVID-19.

In El Paso, Rivas said advocates – from immigration lawyers to operators of private, nonprofit migrant shelters – are preparing for whatever comes after Feb. 19.

“We are preparing. This doesn’t have to be a crisis, this doesn’t have to be chaotic. It can be orderly, it can be safe, it can be truly welcoming people with dignity into the country, which is in line with our values,” Rivas said.

Volunteers on both sides of the border say there are several reasons why the process should be orderly. For starters, they’ll be dealing with a finite number of qualifying refugees. More than 60,000 were sent to Mexico under MPP, but the U.S. government estimates only 25,000 are still pursuing their court cases. The number of daily appointments will be limited.

And those who’ve dealt with the migrants since late 2018 are now much more experienced in dealing with this phenomenon.

Still, there are some challenges, such as screening migrants for COVID-19 and ensuring that health protocols are observed at shelters or detention centers – whichever apply once the full process is known.

“I think we, as a community, are more prepared maybe than we’ve ever been because we anticipated this day. Many of us were hoping it would come sooner,” Rivas said.

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