The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice on Friday announced plans for how they will resume hearings for asylum seekers currently in the Migrant Protection Protocols after court dates were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program, also called "remain in Mexico," requires that most asylum seekers wait in Mexico for their court dates in front of American immigration judges. Since the MPP program began in late 2018, more than 60,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico, including more than 20,000 in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez area.
It will likely take weeks for the criteria to resume hearings to be met. For Texas, it means the state must achieve reopening at a level designated as stage three by Gov. Greg Abbott. The state had reached that level, Abbott announced, when he allowed restaurants to expand their occupancy to 75% capacity and bars to operate at 50% capacity. But he’s since rolled back capacity at eateries and closed bars completely after Texas and more than a dozen states began experiencing surges of cases after reopening.
“In order to resume MPP hearings in a responsible manner that will minimize risk to public health and the spread of disease, DHS plans to adhere to recommended federal guidance and protocols, including in particular the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social-distancing and sanitization standards,” the DHS and U.S. Department of Justice said in a joint statement. “DHS is working to secure the equipment and resources necessary to support this safe resumption of MPP hearings.”
In addition to the state guidelines, the DHS said it will also wait for the U.S. Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to lower their global health advisories to Level 2. The State Department is currently at Level 4, which “advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19,” and the CDC is at Level 3, which recommends the same guidance.
Mexico must also achieve “yellow” status for the states that border the United States, which include Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua on the Texas border and Sonora and Baja California to the west. Yellow status means most business and places are open but residents are still urged to practice caution with an emphasis on the country’s vulnerable population. As of Wednesday, about half the country was one level higher at orange, and the rest of the states at red, the highest in the system, the Associated Press reported.
Once those metrics are achieved, the DHS said it “will develop detailed, location-specific plans to safely resume MPP hearings consistent with CDC guidelines,” according to the statement. “Once the criteria are met, the Departments will provide public notification at least fifteen calendar days prior to resumption of the hearings with location-specific details.”
Face masks will also be required for immigrants and other visitors, and temperature checks will be conducted. If a court room has reached capacity, hearings will be rescheduled, according to the guidance.
Even before the pandemic struck, the MPP program was widely criticized by immigration attorneys and advocates who said it placed thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers at risk of violence in Mexican border cities that have seen sustained or increased bloodshed in border states. Attorneys have also argued that the program makes proper representation nearly impossible because they can’t communicate with clients in migrant shelters or, in more dire cases, asylum seekers who have no place to stay. They argue that instead of returning the migrants to Mexico, they should instead be paroled into the United States and places with family members already living in the country. Despite multiple lawsuits aimed at stopping the program, district courts have allowed it to proceed.