EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The U.S. government on Monday restarted the controversial “Remain in Mexico” program, but federal officials kept their cards close to the chest as to how people can apply for it and how many did.

A Border Report/KTSM crew on Monday witnessed how several migrant families and individuals with the intent to apply for asylum in the United States were turned back by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in the middle of the Paso del Norte International Bridge.

“They told me to go register (in Mexico) because right now they’re not accepting anyone,” said a migrant from Nicaragua, who declined to give his name. He said he hitchhiked to Juarez two days ago when he learned that El Paso would be the first city in the U.S. to place migrants in the program formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols.

“They said ‘no,’ to go look for information in Mexico because the border is closed,” added Ana, who left Guerrero, Mexico, with her child after receiving threats in her village and being the victim of extortion in Acapulco.

The Department of Homeland Security said it restarted MPP in close coordination with the Mexican government in compliance with a U.S. federal court mandate to restore the Trump-era policy. Under MPP, asylum-seekers are given their initial processing, which includes a credible fear of returning to their country, and then sent to Mexico to await their immigration court date.

Trump officials placed nearly 70,000 asylum-seekers on MPP between 2019 and 2020. The Biden administration in February reopened the border for those already enrolled in the program. Migrant advocates were hopeful this would lead to an end to “metering” – a daily application quota – and the practice of making vulnerable populations wait in Mexican border cities where drug cartels kill thousands each year and migrants are often subject to kidnapping, robbery, extortion and worse.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and unauthorized immigration skyrocketed. The Biden administration kept in place the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Title 42 public health order allowing CBP to immediately expel most migrants.

As of Monday, Title 42 remained in place, and ports of entry appeared to still be off-limits for asylum-seekers, though CBP would not confirm that.

“For operational security reasons, DHS is not sharing details such as location of initial returns or number of individuals enrolled,” the agency said in a statement. “Once fully operational, MPP enrollments will take place across the Southwest Border, and returns to Mexico will take place at seven ports of entry in San Diego, Calexico, Nogales, El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville.”

Since Mexico is a partner in the venture, officials across the border received briefings on what to expect.

“The re-implementation of MPP implies the return (to Mexico) of persons found – found – by authorities in the United States and deemed by U.S. authorities eligible to present their case in a court. Then they return to Juarez with their appointment in (U.S.) court,” said Enrique Valenzuela, head of the Chihuahua Population Council, which runs Juarez’s Migrant Assistance Center.

Valenzuela said the Mexican National Immigration Institute will be receiving migrants placed by the U.S. on the MPP program, routing them to Juarez shelters and providing them with humanitarian visas. Some of those shelters include the federally-run Leona Vicario and the Kiki Romero shelters, operated by the city of Juarez.

“When they lack documents validating their stay here, they are exposed to difficulties ranging from extortion to exploitation. This is something that prompted us to look after them,” he said.

Valenzuela said he hopes migrants become informed as to who is eligible for MPP because he fears some are being misled by smugglers. That would explain why Mexicans are trying to apply for MPP.

“It’s very important to clarify that MPP does not apply to Mexican citizens. […] Also, Title 42 is still in place, the pandemic has not ended, people are still being expelled,” he said. “It’s important people wait for official information and not be misled by unscrupulous smugglers. […] Ports of entry to the United States remain closed to anyone who doesn’t have a visa or are not citizens or legal residents of the United States. There are not (waiting) lists.”

Migrant advocates in El Paso also said they were monitoring the re-implementation of MPP, which they rejected during Trump and still don’t like under Biden.

“We stand firmly against any policy that does not uphold the restoration of asylum at the southern border. Whether it’s Title 42 or ‘Remain in Mexico’ and certainly we stand against any policy that grows the population” of vulnerable migrants who are taken out of the country, said Marisa Limon Garza, deputy director of El Paso’s Hope Border Institute.

She said “MPP 2.0” was expanded to include all Western Hemisphere nations excluding Mexico. Non-Spanish speaking Haitians, Brazilians and Jamaicans face a triple-whammy of being sent back to dangerous Mexican cities, not speaking the language of the locals and, in some cases, racial discrimination.

“It’s dangerous because there are situations in Mexico where we have documented cases from people who are Black and the racist sentiment against Black migrants, in particular, is problematic,” she said. “We stand against this policy. There’s no way to make this more humane. We look forward to the day when (MPP) will be over, when Title 42 will be over and when we’ll have humane pathways for people to seek protection at our borders.”