EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – El Paso is ready to welcome small groups of asylum-seekers returning from Mexico beginning on Friday into a facility where COVID-19 protocols will be enforced and months of planning for their arrival will coalesce.

Casa del Refugiado (House of the Refugee) will receive 25 prospective refugees per day through March 10, when the number will double to 50 and then triple to 75 at the end of that month, said Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, the umbrella organization for a series of migrant shelters in El Paso.

“Individuals will arrive, they will be able to sleep (and eat). That is very important, very crucial to all of these individuals who have been in Mexico close to two years in very challenging conditions,” Garcia said. “We will assist them to make calls to family members they have all over the country. Those individuals will purchase bus or plane tickets for them, and they will be on their way.”

Garcia expects the prospective refugees to stay in El Paso between 24 and 96 hours. “Ninety-nine percent of them will be leaving El Paso in very short order,” he said on Thursday, as he gave the news media a tour of Casa del Refugiado.

The shelter has been inspected by infectious disease specialists and will require guests and employees to wear face masks. Families will be given hygiene packs that include hand-sanitizers and a quarantine area is ready in case of an unexpected COVID-19 infection, Garcia said.

Only those asylum-seekers whom the Department of Homeland Security placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program starting in January 2019 and who still have an active case in U.S. immigration court will be allowed to re-enter the United States, said Melissa Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services.

And even those must have registered to return on a page run by a United Nations agency, have received and passed a telephone interview, been told specifically when to show up and pass a COVID-19 rapid test on the day of their return or a day earlier, Lopez said.

“This is a first phase and it’s important to understand that not everyone will qualify,” she said. “If you just arrived last week to seek asylum, you’re not eligible” to come across under the MPP rollback.

Advocates as well as government officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are concerned that prospective migrants will misunderstand who is eligible to enter, and try to come to the border. Already, Tijuana, Juarez and Matamoros are witnessing the arrival of more prospective migrants.

Those who are eligible to return will be given parole at a U.S. port of entry and allowed to continue their cases in the United States. They will be given a form to transfer their cases from El Paso to their destination – Houston, Los Angeles, New York, etc.

“It will be important that they fill out that document accurately and that they hire an attorney because their chances of winning (asylum) increase five-fold if they do,” Lopez said. She expressed concern that simple mistakes like writing information on one line that should go in another, or handwriting that may not be fully legible, could result in denial.

President Biden last month announced he was rolling back the MPP program. DHS officials estimate that out of the program’s nearly 70,000 participants some 25,000 remain eligible. The rest either were turned down, missed court cases or went back to their home countries.

Garcia said 8,600 prospective refugees have registered so far in the UN page and that, as of Thursday, 350 had passed all requirements for re-entry, save for the same-day or 24-hour negative COVID-19 test, which the UN would be facilitating. If they fail the test, they’ll be placed in quarantine in Mexico until they’re eligible to retest.

El Paso non-profits, including Annunciation House, found themselves overrun in late 2018 and early 2019 by the sheer number of asylum-seekers released from DHS custody back in the day when immigration enforcement agencies were stopping hundreds, sometimes thousands of people per day in many sectors.

That won’t happen this time around, Garcia and Lopez said, because the nonprofits have been preparing for the return of asylum-seekers since Joe Biden won the Nov. 3 election – and also because communication is good between advocates, local and federal officials.

“For right now, the focus is on trying to get this program launched and get as many people processed as quickly as possible with as few kinks as possible so that we can move into welcoming larger and larger numbers on a daily basis,” Lopez said.

Garcia said plans call for eventually hosting up to 250-300 returning migrants per day, but he doesn’t know when that could happen. In addition, talks are ongoing at the federal level to determine if Title 42, the controversial CDC rule that allows DHS to expel unauthorized migrants withing hours of crossing the border, will continue, be modified or done away with.

Garcia said Casa del Refugiado can accommodate a maximum of 300 people at a time. Plus there are the other shelters available such as Annunciation House.

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