The Biden administration's move to revive Donald Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy will subject thousands of people to "enormous suffering" and leave them vulnerable to kidnap and rape as they languish in dangerous Mexican border cities, migration advocates have warned.
After reaching a deal with Mexico, the US will by 6 December start returning asylum seekers from other Latin American countries to Mexico where they will be obliged to wait while their case is assessed.
Under the policy, first implemented by Trump, asylum seekers were left stranded in violent Mexican border cities where they were routinely targeted by organized crime groups for rape, robbery, extortion and abduction.
The US government is promising to improve the scheme to allow asylum seekers legal representation and to conclude their claims "within six months of an individual's initial return to Mexico".
Mexico said US officials met its concerns over funding for migrant shelters, protection for vulnerable groups and access to medical checkups and Covid-19 vaccines. It also promised to take "local safety conditions" into account before accepting asylum-seekers - a pledge that provoked disquiet among migrant advocates.
But advocates argue that the main shortcomings of the programme are unchanged.
"The violence faced by migrants in Mexico is going to outweigh any sort of promise made by the Mexican government to try to make this better," said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas. "There aren't enough shelters. People are continuing to be kidnapped - sometimes in their own shelter … Mexico can try [to protect migrants] but the reality is Mexico doesn't have the means of doing it."
The scheme, known euphemistically as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), was part of a barrage of Trump policies aimed at undercutting the asylum system. The Trump administration also invoked a previously obscure public health law, Title 42, in order to carry out summary expulsions because of the supposed health risk posed by migrants during the Covid pandemic.
Biden campaigned on putting a friendlier face on US immigration policy - but in office he has kept Title 42 in place. In August, a federal judge ordered the US government to revive the Remain in Mexico programme - a decision the Biden administration is appealing.
"You now have two policies [Title 42 and Remain in Mexico] which are no longer Trump policies, but Biden policies," Rivas said. "Biden has the ability to end Title 42 and he hasn't done it. We're seeing enormous suffering along the border."
Asylum seekers and migrant advocates have given horrific accounts of violence visited on people sent to Mexico under MPP.
Taxi drivers in Ciudad Juárez have picked out foreigners in the city and delivered them to criminal gangs. Children have disappeared from migrant shelters. Women have been raped and murdered.
Human Rights First, a US human rights group which investigated the abuses of Remain in Mexico, documented more than 1,500 cases of kidnappings and attacks against migrants in the scheme.
Many of the asylum seekers being returned to Mexico, Rivas said, were not informed by US border officials of where they were headed until the last minute.
The misery of the MPP scheme was encapsulated in a tent camp along the Rio Grande in Matamoros, opposite Brownsville, Texas, where asylum seekers endured floods, freezing weather and extortion by local gangs.
"It's inevitable these migrants will form these camps again," said Father Francisco Gallardo, director of migrant ministries in the Diocese of Matamoros. "All of the border cities are going to fill up with migrants."
Reviving MPP may cause some political headaches for Biden, but the issue has received little attention in the Mexican media. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador did not address the issue at his morning press conference on Thursday, even as he in effect abandoned his 2018 campaign promises to not "do the dirty work" of other governments on the immigration issue.
"The Mexican government is very aligned with the legacy that Trump left - of immigration control," said Tonatiuh Guillén López, a former immigration commissioner, who resigned in 2019 after Mexico caved to Trump's threats to stop migration through the country or face crippling tariffs.
"Mexico became an apparatus of [US] immigration controls."