Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States will be sent to Mexico while their cases are evaluated, the Department of Homeland Security announced Thursday.
“Today we are announcing historic measures to bring the illegal immigration crisis under control,” said DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a statement. “Aliens trying to game the system to get into our country illegally will no longer be able to disappear into the United States, where many skip their court dates. Instead, they will wait for an immigration court decision while they are in Mexico.”
Under the new policy, citizens of third-party countries who cross from Mexico into the United States and request asylum will be returned to Mexico until a U.S. immigration judge determines their final eligibility for asylum.
Nielsen told lawmakers about the measures, which will be implemented in the coming days, at a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday.
Nielsen was confronted by Democratic members, both over the new policy and over the death of Jackelin Caal, a Guatemalan 7-year-old girl who died under Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody earlier this month.
“Let me be clear: we will undertake these steps consistent with all domestic and international legal obligations, including our humanitarian commitments. We have notified the Mexican government of our intended actions. In response, Mexico has made an independent determination that they will commit to implement essential measures on their side of the border,” said Nielsen in a statement Thursday.
But the move is likely to face significant court challenges, in line with other administrative changes the Trump administration has tried on immigration policy.
“[This violates everything] that we understand about our [asylum] laws. The situation is manufactured. We wouldn’t have a crisis with our [asylum] policy if we actually went through the proper steps and adjudicated these cases quicker — I think you wouldn’t see this hysteria that the administration is causing,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).
“This administration has built a wall through illegal policies that cannot stand,” said Archi Pyati, chief of policy at the Tahirih Justice Center, a legal protection group for immigrant women.
“Forcing refugees to remain in Mexico goes against the international obligations that bind the U.S. and its treatment of refugees. It is also inhumane. We know from our trips to Mexico that survivors and families are struggling to stay sheltered, living in unsanitary conditions, exposed to rain and cold, and are vulnerable to additional violence,” added Pyati in a statement.
The Mexican government, in a major reversal of previous policy, announced Thursday it will allow Central American migrants to remain in Mexico while their U.S. asylum cases are processed.
The chargé d’affaires at the Mexican embassy in Washington, Ambassador José Antonio Zabalgoitia, said U.S. authorities notified their Mexican counterparts of the new policy early Thursday.
Zabalgoitia said Mexico decided to take in the migrants out of humanitarian concern for their well-being, but denied any coordination or agreement with U.S. authorities to implement the measure.
“If it were up to us, the world would be better without this measure,” said Zabalgoitia.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has already named a permanent replacement for Zabalgoitia, Ambassador Martha Bárcena, whose nomination was approved by committees in the country’s Senate Thursday.
Mexico will “authorize, for humanitarian reasons and in a temporary manner, the entry of certain foreign persons coming from the United States who have entered into that country through a port of entry or who have been apprehended between ports of entry, have been interviewed by migratory control authorities of that country, and who have received a summons to appear before an immigration judge,” the country’s Foreign Relations Secretariat (SRE) announced in a statement.
Mexico has historically declined to receive any non-Mexican nationals removed from the United States.
“I think it was a diplomatic breakthrough. I talked to Secretary [Mike] Pompeo about it. I think it was a significant step forward in our relationship with Mexico, and I think part of it is to have a security agreement with Mexico and Central America to help resolve this problem, because it’s a problem for Mexico as well,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told The Hill.
It’s the first major change in immigration policy for Lopez Obrador, who was inaugurated Dec. 1.
While Mexican officials denied any bilateral coordination on the measures announced Thursday, López Obrador’s team told the Washington Post
in November they were open to a similar program, dubbed “Remain in Mexico.”
One of Lopez Obrador’s goals is to invest heavily in developing the economy in southern Mexico and Central America, and he’s been trying to recruit the United States in pushing forward what he calls a “Marshall Plan” for the region.
Zabalgoitia denied any quid pro quo in the matching asylum measures, saying both the U.S. policy to send back asylum seekers and the Mexican policy to take them in were “unilateral.”
Still, Democrats panned the Mexican acquiescence to the new DHS policy, saying it empowers the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“It allows the Trump administration to corrupt our asylum and refugee system that we have in place in this country. And it’s a foundation of who we are as a nation. They shouldn’t participate, because they may be acting from a point of view of love and caring, but the United States isn’t,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).
“And you are, by doing so, abetting the Trump administration and its denial of the rightful petition that they have for asylum in the United States,” added Gutierrez.
— Updated at 5:26 p.m.