With border crossings skyrocketing to the highest levels of the Trump presidency (they hit 60,000 last month) and federal judges once again stymieing the president’s plans to crack down on border crossings, the Trump Administration has quietly negotiated an agreement with Mexico that effectively circumvents US courts to implement one of Trump’s biggest immigration-policy wins so far: A plan that will keep Central American applicants for asylum in the US on the Mexican side of the border while their claims are processed.
The Washington Post, which broke the news about the agreement Saturday afternoon (the news came as a complete surprise to many, as the Trump Administration and representatives of incoming Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador successfully negotiated it in secret), said that the new plan – tentatively titled “Remain in Mexico” – will end the practice of “catch and release”: When asylum applicants are released into the US to await their hearings before an asylum judge. Under the new rules, after being screened at a US port of entry, asylum seekers would wait until their scheduled court appearance before an immigration judge. On the day of their hearing, they would be escorted to a US courthouse by US officers – but if their asylum isn’t granted they would be released into Mexico to await a final decision or, if their application is denied, they would be deported by the US back to their country of origin.
Already, asylum officers and other immigration officials are heading to a border checkpoint in San Diego to start rolling out the policy before the widely publicized caravans of Central American immigrants that became one of the dominating issues of the pre-midterm election cycle continue to approach the border.
US officials said that freeing up the detention space would allow them to process claims more quickly. The ultimate hope by Mexico and the US is that the policy will encourage more migrants to remain in Mexico, where many jobs at factories and assembly plants remain unfilled (likely because wages are only a small fraction of what they are in the US).
U.S. officials describing the system on the condition of anonymity said they will be able to process at least twice as many asylum claims as they do now because they would not be limited by detention space constraints at U.S. ports of entry. The San Ysidro port of entry in the San Diego area accepts about 60 to 100 asylum claims per day.
Just over the border, nearly 5,000 Central Americans have arrived in Tijuana this month as part of caravan groups, and several thousand others are en route to the city, where a baseball field has been turned into a swelling tent camp. The city’s mayor declared a “humanitarian crisis” Friday and said the city’s taxpayers would not foot the bill for the migrants’ care.
A group of business leaders in the city said they have thousands of job openings at the city’s assembly plants, or maquiladoras, inviting Central American migrants to work in the factories. Though wages there are a small fraction of U.S. pay, Mexican officials said the work offer was one reason they believe the Remain in Mexico plan will succeed. Across the country, there are 100,000 jobs available to Central American asylum seekers, officials said.
The deal was finalized with the help of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, which earned her a rare morsel of praise from her boss, who has reportedly been trying to fire her due to her perceived weakness on immigration.
The deal took shape last week in Houston during a meeting between Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s incoming foreign minister, and top U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.
Nielsen has been fighting to keep her job since the midterms, and while Trump has told aides he plans to replace her, the president praised her this week for “trying.”
While the deal is intended to be a “short term” solution, the “medium-to-long” term plan, according to Mexican officials, is that Central American migrants “remain in Mexico.”
“For now, we have agreed to this policy of Remain in Mexico,” said Olga Sánchez Cordero, Mexico’s incoming interior minister, the top domestic policy official for López Obrador, who takes office Dec. 1. In an interview with The Washington Post, she called it a “short-term solution.”
“The medium- and long-term solution is that people don’t migrate,” Sánchez Cordero said. “Mexico has open arms and everything, but imagine, one caravan after another after another, that would also be a problem for us.”
The deal is the clearest indication yet that Trump and AMLO are enjoying a more cordial relationship than many had expected. And while a court challenge to the plan could still materialize, US courts don’t have jurisdiction in Mexico. With this in mind, it appears Trump has finally found a way to circumvent the “Obama judges” who have been the biggest obstacles to his immigration policy.
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