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Biden administration says it will restart the Trump-era 'Remain in Mexico' policy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. and Mexico have agreed to restart one of former President Donald Trump's signature border policies. The so-called "Remain in Mexico" policy forced asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico before their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. President Biden has called the policy dangerous and inhumane, but a federal court ordered his administration to revive it earlier this year. Today, the U.S. and Mexico announced they had reached an agreement on the details, and NPR's Joel Rose is here to explain those details. Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: A federal judge, as I said, ruled that this policy must be put back into place. So did the Biden administration have any say in this at all?

ROSE: Well, Biden administration officials stressed today that they are doing this under duress. They continue to argue that the Remain in Mexico policy was flawed, which is why the administration tried to end it earlier this year. But then a federal judge, as you say, ordered the administration to restart Remain in Mexico. Here's White House press secretary Jen Psaki talking about the policy today.

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JEN PSAKI: Deeply flawed - that's why we stopped enrolling individuals in the program on Day 1 and subsequently issued a memorandum in June terminating the program.

ROSE: In fact, the administration issued another memo trying to end the policy in October. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas wrote that Remain in Mexico likely did contribute to a reduction in unauthorized migration, but he still decided that the human costs of the program were just too high, and he moved to terminate it again. So now the administration is in this awkward position of trying to end this policy and also trying to restart it at the same time.

SHAPIRO: Remind us where this program came from. What were its origins?

ROSE: Well, Remain in Mexico started under former President Trump. About 70,000 migrants were returned to Mexico under this policy. Many lived in makeshift tent camps or dangerous border towns, where they were targets of kidnapping and violence. President Biden tried to end the program, but the states of Texas and Missouri went to court. They argued that the administration had ended the policy unlawfully, and that was one reason, they argued, why illegal border crossings jumped to historic levels. A federal judge in Texas agreed and ordered the Biden administration to revive it. So for months now, the U.S. and Mexico have been negotiating over how to do this with what they call key changes to address humanitarian concerns.

SHAPIRO: Describe those changes. What does Remain in Mexico 2.0 look like?

ROSE: So vulnerable migrants are excluded, and the definition of who qualifies as vulnerable is expanded from what it was under the Trump administration. Migrants are supposed to have access to lawyers. There are promises about improved security in Mexico. Migrants will be asked if they're afraid of being returned to Mexico, which was not the case under the Trump administration. And they'll also be asked if they want the COVID-19 vaccine. Another notable change is that all migrants from the Western Hemisphere will be included this time. Originally, Mexico only agreed to take back Spanish-speaking migrants. Now that is expanded to include Haitians and Brazilians and others.

SHAPIRO: Immigrant advocates were so critical of this policy under the Trump administration. What are they saying about these latest developments?

ROSE: They are aghast. I mean, I talked to Eleanor Acer at Human Rights First, the nonprofit organization that documented more than 1,500 violent attacks on migrants in Remain in Mexico. And here's some of what she said.

ELEANOR ACER: The Remain in Mexico program was a humanitarian fiasco when it was implemented under the Trump administration, and it will be a humanitarian fiasco when implemented under the Biden administration. It's inherently inhumane, and there's simply no way to fix the program, given its flaws.

ROSE: Immigrant advocates were already angry that the Biden administration had kept in place this public health order known as Title 42 that has allowed the immigration authorities to quickly expel hundreds of thousands of migrants during the pandemic. So this is, you know, just another serious disappointment for them.

SHAPIRO: And when does the new policy take effect?

ROSE: As soon as Monday - it is not exactly clear where it will start. And there are lots of other big questions, I should say, as well. How many people will the administration enroll in this new version of Remain in Mexico? Can authorities really deliver on promises of safety in Mexico? And will these migrants really have access to lawyers in the U.S.? A lot of immigration lawyers and organizations signed a letter saying they would not participate in a restarted Remain in Mexico, so there's a lot that's still unclear.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.