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'Remain In Mexico' Policy For Asylum-Seekers Is Reinstated By The Supreme Court

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday set back the Biden administration's efforts to reverse one of former President Donald Trump's hardline immigration policies. The conservative justices issued an order that could force the White House to reinstate a program that makes asylum-seekers wait in dangerous Mexican border cities for their cases to be decided. We have NPR's John Burnett on the line with us from Austin, Texas. Good morning, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, John, what did the Supreme Court do yesterday in regards to the Remain in Mexico program?

BURNETT: Well, it told the Homeland Security Department that it may have to restart one of the signature programs of the Trump administration, one that Biden's people wanted to bury on Day 1. Trump wanted to keep migrants who were asking for asylum out of the U.S., reasoning that once they got here, they'd just stay. So in early 2019, he instituted what became known as Remain in Mexico. Nearly 70,000 asylum-seekers were told to wait across the border until their cases were decided. When Biden cancelled the program, Republican statehouses in Texas and Missouri sued, warning that they'd be overwhelmed with migrants. A Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas ruled earlier this month that Biden had illegally canceled the program arbitrarily and capriciously. Biden asked for an emergency stay from the Supreme Court. It refused with the three liberal justices dissenting.

FADEL: Now, civil rights and immigrant rights organizations were very critical of the policy and now are denouncing last night's ruling. Walk us through the Remain in Mexico policy. Why is it so controversial?

BURNETT: Right. Well, the formal name is the Migrant Protection Protocols, but the title was a mockery of the program's reality because what it really did was endanger them. You had migrants living in a public park in Matamoros with mud, mosquitoes, rats and surrounded by criminals. When migrants would leave to go to the store or to some menial job in town, they'd often get kidnapped and held for ransom. What's more, Leila, it was a nightmare for Mexico. These border cities couldn't protect them. They couldn't feed them. DHS responded last night that it will vigorously challenge the ruling. But as the appeal goes forward, officials will comply with the order in good faith, and they've begun to reengage with their Mexican partners. But Edna Yang, with an immigrant advocacy group American Gateways in Austin, says that's just totally unrealistic.

EDNA YANG: And kind of shoving people into a border in a bunch of tents and saying, you're just going to have to survive and Mexico will just have to take care of you, is not something that works. And it's not something that I think the Mexican government is going to look kindly upon.

FADEL: So what are President Biden's options here?

BURNETT: Well, his Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, wrote a memo this summer that the program was fatally flawed. It distracted U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationships, and it resulted in too many asylum-seekers with legitimate claims giving up and going home. So now the case will be argued before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. And if the administration loses there, they could be back at the Supreme Court for a full hearing.

FADEL: John, do the states that sued - Texas, Missouri - do they have a case? What's the situation at the border right now?

BURNETT: I could tell you the DHS is a hot mess on the Texas border these days. I was down there in the Rio Grande Valley last week. They're getting 20,000 migrants a week, and COVID complicates everything. In Hidalgo County, there's a sort of refugee camp next to the river where a county commissioner told me they're sheltering some 2,000 migrants who've tested positive for coronavirus. Here's Everardo Villarreal, who's the commissioner down there.

EVERARDO VILLARREAL: I believe we're going to be overrun in a very short period of time. Sooner or later, these - the immigrants are going to be under our bridges, you know, sleeping in our neighborhoods, on the streets if our federal government doesn't do something to stop the inflow of immigrants.

BURNETT: I asked the commissioner, what's the answer? He said, Democrats and Republicans need to get together, stop cat fighting and fix this immigrant problem once and for all.

FADEL: NPR's John Burnett. Thank you, John.

BURNETT: You bet, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.