U.S. unwinds Trump 'remain in Mexico' program, mulls flights for asylum seekers

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Reuters) - A group of 25 asylum seekers was allowed into the United States on Friday, a United Nations official said, the start of efforts to unwind one of former President Donald Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies, which forced thousands to wait in Mexico for their U.S. cases to be heard.

The U.S. government has also expressed interest in funding flights that would bring back certain people who were blocked by the Trump policy and who are no longer at the border, the U.N. official said in an interview with Reuters on Friday.

President Joe Biden pledged during his campaign that he would immediately rescind the Trump policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), under which more than 65,000 mostly Central American asylum seekers were denied entry and sent back across the border pending court hearings. Most returned home but some stayed in Mexico in sometimes squalid or dangerous conditions, vulnerable to kidnapping and other violence.

Now they will be allowed into the United States to wait for their cases to be heard in immigration courts.

The effort started slowly on Friday at a port of entry in San Ysidro, California, where the 25 MPP asylum seekers were allowed to cross the border and will now quarantine in a local hotel, according to the non-profit organization Jewish Family Service of San Diego.

Rosario, a 40-year-old Nicaraguan asylum seeker, and her nine-year-old son were among the first group to cross.

Rosario was relieved to reach the U.S. after a 21-month wait in Tijuana, where she said she was afraid to go outside for fear of being targeted as a migrant, she told Reuters. Her son missed nearly two years of school during that time.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

“When we put our feet down in San Ysidro, and we knew we had gotten there, we smiled from ear to ear,” said Rosario, who is seeking political asylum and asked to be identified by her middle name for her safety.

Hundreds of migrants signed up on Friday within hours of the launch of a U.N. website that allows migrants with active cases to register remotely to be processed at the U.S.-Mexico border, said Mark Manly, a representative in Mexico for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

At a migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, several dozen asylum seekers lined up outside a makeshift school to register.

Sandra Andrade, a Salvadoran who has been waiting in Mexico for over a year to resolve her case, talked on video chat with her two daughters in Boston as she waited in line.

“I’m going to be with you soon,” she said. “I love you!”

On the Tijuana side of the border crossing, about 300 migrants gathered in the morning, even as Mexican officials told them they would not be able to cross without registering ahead of time.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

The effort will expand in the coming week to two additional ports of entry in Texas, including one near the encampment in Matamoros, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokeswoman.

Advocates have pushed for the Biden administration to fly migrants in the program to the United States, which they say would be safer and faster for people traveling from Central America and elsewhere.

The United States and the United Nations are evaluating the locations of migrants and costs associated with possible flights and land transportation within Mexico, said Dana Graber Ladek, chief of mission for the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration in Mexico.

“Nothing is in place yet,” she said. “Right now we’re still exploring all of the possibilities.”

A State Department spokesman declined to comment.

Biden began overturning Trump’s hardline immigration policies on Jan. 20, his first day in office, when he lifted a travel ban on 13 mostly Muslim-majority and African countries, halted construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and reversed other measures.

The Biden administration is treading carefully in its efforts to process asylum seekers, wary that the policy shift could encourage more migrants to trek to the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. officials say anyone who seeks to enter and does not have an active MPP case will be immediately expelled.

The administration estimates that only 25,000 people out of the more than 65,000 enrolled in MPP still have active immigration court cases and began dealing with that group on Friday.

Biden officials say they expect eventually to process 300 people per day at two of the ports.

In a letter sent to Biden on Feb. 10, a group of Republican lawmakers said allowing asylum seekers stranded in Mexico to enter the United States “sends the signal that our borders are open.”

The United States, Mexico and international organizations have scrambled in recent days to figure out how to register migrants, transport them to the border, test them for COVID-19 and get them to their U.S. destinations, people familiar with the effort said.

The situation has taken on urgency as a winter storm has brought frigid temperatures to much of the southern United States and northern Mexico, including the Matamoros camp.

Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in San Diego, Ted Hesson in Washington and Laura Gottesdiener in Matamoros, Mexico; Additional reporting by Jorge Duenes in Tijuana, Mexico; Editing by Ross Colvin, Alistair Bell and Lincoln Feast.