The Department of Homeland Security announced a new policy Thursday that will require asylum seekers who enter the United States illegally to return to Mexico and wait while their claims are processed, possibly for months or years, describing the plan as a “historic” measure.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen prepared to outlined the plan during an oversight hearing by members of the House Judiciary committee, telling lawmakers in prepared remarks that the administration is preparing to implement an accord with Mexico’s new leftist government that will allow the United States to send asylum seekers who cross illegally back to Mexico.
Citing emergency powers allowed under the Immigration and Nationality Act, Nielsen said the measures were needed to “bring under control” a surge of unmerited asylum claims by Central Americans that have overloaded U.S. immigration courts.
“Once implemented, individuals arriving in or entering the United States from Mexico — illegally or without proper documentation — may be returned to Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings,” she said.
“They will not be able to disappear into the United States. They will have to wait for approval to come into the United States. If they are granted asylum by a U.S. judge, they will be welcomed into America. If they are not, they will be removed to their home countries,” Nielsen said.
The United States has been in negotiations with Mexico for weeks to reach such an accord, which had been referred to as “Remain in Mexico,” believing that illegal crossings will decline if Central Americans believe the asylum system will no longer offer them a way to avoid deportation.
Top officials from the government of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador have said they would accept such measures as part of a broader development and aid package aimed at creating jobs in Central America to reduce the need to emigrate.
In a statement, Mexico’s foreign ministry said Thursday it “will authorize, for humanitarian reasons and temporarily, the entry of certain foreign persons from the United States who have entered the country through a port of entry or who have been apprehended between ports of entry, have been interviewed by the authorities of migratory control of that country, and have received a summons to appear before an immigration judge.”
They will be allowed “to our country so that they can wait here for the development of their immigration process in the United States,” the statement read.
“They will be entitled to equal treatment without any discrimination and with due respect to their human rights, as well as the opportunity to apply for a work permit so they can find paid jobs, which will allow them to meet their basic needs,” it continued.
Nielsen faces lawmakers Thursday almost two weeks after the disclosure of a 7-year-old migrant girl’s death after she and her father entered the United States illegally and were taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Homeland Security officials did not notify lawmakers of the child’s death, which happened Dec. 8. DHS officials have not said when Nielsen was informed of the incident.
This week, lawmakers also reached a tentative accord to avert a government shutdown that would not give President Donald Trump the border wall funding he has demanded.
In a tweet Thursday morning, Trump praised Border Patrol agents, military personnel and others for their efforts to stop caravans of Central American migrants from crossing the border. “Border is tight,” the president wrote.
But the latest border enforcement statistics show the opposite. Last month arrests along the border reached their highest levels since Trump took office, as record numbers of family groups entered illegally seeking asylum.
Homeland Security officials say they are facing “a crisis” and have urged lawmakers to act.