EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect processing of registered asylum-seekers begins on Feb. 26. in El Paso.

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – El Paso can expect a limited number of asylum-seekers to come across the border once the Biden administration begins its rollback of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, a local official says.

It can also be assured that those international citizens will have passed a COVID-19 screening before they come over from Mexico, El Paso County Commissioner David Stout said.

“We have been advised by the federal government that starting Friday, they are going to be admitting a number of individuals across three ports of entry, and one of those is here in El Paso,” Stout told Border Report. “From what I understand, they’re going to be admitting 25 to 30 folks on a daily basis, though at some point they want to ramp it up to 300 people a day.”

If the latter happens and local shelters are overrun, county officials are prepared to discuss paying for migrants to stay at hotels and later bill the federal government for reimbursement. The same would happen if a migrant gets sick on this side and needs to be quarantined.

“Everything’s on the table,” Stout said. “We need to advocate to make sure the federal government takes the lead in providing resources for this welcoming. It’s not fair to expect county and city taxpayers to foot the bill for taking care of these folks. We will do it with open arms, this is how El Paso has stepped up in the past. But in the end, immigration is a federal issue and we should be advocating that the federal government steps in.”

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman on Thursday clarified that processing of registered asylum seekers won’t begin in El Paso until Feb. 26.

County and city officials, as well as the heads of local nonprofits, Bishop Mark J. Seitz and Mexican Consul General Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de Leon on Friday met with U.S. federal officials to ensure a seamless process once the rollback begins.

El Paso County Commissioner Precinct 2 David Stout

“We want to make this the most humane, the most welcoming process possible and we have a really great partnership (with federal authorities) which is something that has been difficult to attain over a number of years. It’s an opportunity to have a great partnership with lots of communication,” he said.

El Paso migrant advocacy organizations, as well as federal immigration agencies, were overwhelmed by the mass arrival of thousands of asylum seekers two years ago. Shelters were full and the U.S. Border Patrol ended up dropping off hundreds of migrants at bus stations. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The dynamics are different than they were in 2019 because we’re in a pandemic and social distancing has to take place in congregate settings,” he said. “From what I understand, these folks will have to have a negative test in hand before they’re admitted into the United States […]  They won’t be eligible to come in unless they have a negative test with them.”

Despite the pandemic, local governments and nonprofits are well-prepared to handle the return of the asylum-seekers. The federal government estimates that some 25,000 of the more than 60,000 migrants placed on MPP, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” are still actively pursuing their claims.

“I think we’re on better footing this time around. I believe last time it was kind of thrown together at the last minute, reacting to an emergency type of situation,” Stout said. “We’ve been anticipating this for a while, obviously understanding that the federal administration changed in terms of having a more welcoming approach to immigration issues. We are in a much better position now than we were two years ago.”

Mexico working with United Nations agencies on MPP rollback

Border Report on Wednesday asked health authorities in Juarez if they were planning to provide testing for migrants on the MPP program or those waiting at shelters.

Chihuahua state officials said they were not.

However, a government official in Mexico, speaking on condition of anonymity, said international organizations including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (OIM) are working with the governments of both countries to assist with MPP testing and logistics on the Mexican side.

The process will start once the White House unveils a website Friday where migrants on MPP whose case is still active and have not been turned down already can register for readmission. The asylum seekers will later receive electronic notice of the date he or she must report to a specific port of entry.

The Mexican official said Tijuana is scheduled to process the first U.S.-approved migrants as early as Friday. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, coincidentally, is scheduled to be in Tijuana this weekend to inaugurate a National Guard building and talk about public safety.

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