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Federal Court Blocks 'Remain In Mexico' Program For Central American Asylum Seekers


A federal appeals court in California has blocked the Trump administration's signature policy to keep asylum-seekers out of America. It's called Remain in Mexico, and because of it, thousands of asylum-seekers have been stuck in that country, waiting while their applications are pending in U.S. immigration courts. NPR's John Burnett covers immigration. He joins us from member station KUT in Austin.

Hey, John.


KELLY: It's been a while, it feels like, since we spoke about Remain in Mexico. Meanwhile, it has been ticking along. What has happened to migrants under this policy?

BURNETT: Well, a year ago - January - the government began forcing asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico to wait for their court hearings. And the thinking was if they were allowed to enter the U.S. and they weren't detained, they'd skip their court dates to avoid being deported. The policy is called Migration Protection Protocols, MPP. And it's sparked tremendous controversy and emotion because its critics say it does the exact opposite. It doesn't protect migrants. It puts them in unnecessary danger by forcing them to wait in dangerous cities on the Mexican border. There are now some 60,000 migrants in places like Tijuana, Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros. I've been to these cities, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Yeah.

BURNETT: And for Central American migrants, they're snake pits as bad as the murderous places they fled. There are organized extortion gangs in these Mexican border towns that kidnap migrants and their children in broad daylight. They hold them at gunpoint until their relatives in the U.S. pay thousands of dollars in ransom. And so this is what the California court decision hopes to prevent in the future.

KELLY: OK. And I said - I should inject. The federal appeals court in California in question is the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That's in San Francisco. What exactly did they say?

BURNETT: Right. So it was a three-judge panel, and they ruled 2-1 that MPP should be, quote, "enjoined in its entirety." They gave two reasons. First, they said that Homeland Security is misusing a federal statute that allows the government to send migrants back to Mexico. They said the agency's not supposed to return people who are seeking protection. And second, they said the government can't send people to a country where they risk harm or death. Here's Judy Rabinovitz, senior counsel for the ACLU's Immigrant Rights Project (ph). She argued the case before the district court last fall, and this is how she characterized the appellate judges' thinking.

JUDY RABINOVITZ: It also violates our obligation not to return people to a country where they would face persecution or torture. The government claimed that people who are being sent back to Mexico aren't being persecuted, and the court forcefully rejected that as well and said, yes, they are.

KELLY: John, do we expect the Trump administration to appeal, try to keep their policy in place?


KELLY: Surprise.

BURNETT: They have been. The government could ask for a stay of today's ruling and request the full 9th Circuit to consider the issues, or they could fast-track it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has been ruling in Trump's favor on lots of his immigration initiatives. The Department of Justice hasn't said exactly what it will do. Late today a spokesman defended MPP, saying the Trump administration has acted faithfully and within the law. He lamented the, quote, "impropriety of nationwide injunctions" by the 9th Circuit, which has often been at odds with Trump's immigration agenda.

KELLY: And in the meantime, what about all the migrants waiting in these snake pits, to use your word?

BURNETT: Well, the Homeland Security hasn't commented yet. Immigration officials have been bragging about how effective MPP was and how it was a game-changer. You know, they could always ramp up the other ways they're blocking asylum. They've been shackling and flying hundreds of asylum applicants on flights down to Guatemala, saying they have to apply for asylum down there. I can tell you I've been talking with dozens of migrants who've been waiting for months in Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros. Some are considering giving up and going back home. Today's news may give them a ray of hope.

KELLY: That is NPR's John Burnett.

Thank you, John.

BURNETT: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIM'S "AMSTERDAM BLUES PT. 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.