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Biden Administration's Asylum System To Replace Trump's 'Remain In Mexico'


America's asylum system is about to change. Under the Trump administration, tens of thousands of asylum-seekers were pushed out of the U.S. and forced to wait in Mexico while their cases worked through the system. The program was called "Remain in Mexico." The Biden administration has already paused that policy. And today, they're announcing a complete reversal. Now some of those migrants will be allowed back into the United States. NPR's John Burnett spoke with Yady Meyan Calderon, a 34-year-old chemist from Cuba. For the last year and a half, she's been living in a beat up tenement house in Reynosa, Mexico, with 15 other Cubans.

YADY MEYAN CALDERON: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: She says they feel like they have finally arrived at the light at the end of the tunnel. But there are a lot of questions and concerns about how this plan is actually going to work. We're joined now by the person who will oversee all of it, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. Thank you so much for being with us, Secretary Mayorkas.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Good morning. And thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: There are currently tens of thousands of people with active asylum cases. How do you decide who will be let in first?

MAYORKAS: Rachel, we are building a program to prioritize individuals who entered the "Remain in Mexico" program that the Trump administration built. What we are doing is going to be triaging them, essentially, to prioritize those according to the date on which they first entered the program. At the same time, however, we will be sensitive to acute vulnerabilities, individuals who are suffering especially and seek to accelerate them as well. This will take time to build. But we are poised to begin the program later this month.

MARTIN: And guidance from the White House says that you're going to be able to process up to 300 people a day at between - what? - two and three ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, is that right?

MAYORKAS: That is correct, Rachel. It's going to take a bit of time to scale up to that quantity of processing. But that is, indeed, our objective. We're very focused on it.

MARTIN: Under the "Remain in Mexico" policy, some 68,000 asylum-seekers were sent back to Mexico. Many of them, although, went back home to their country of origin. So is this policy going to allow those people back into the U.S., too, those not currently waiting in Mexico?

MAYORKAS: Rachel, what we have identified is approximately 25,000 individuals who are - who have active cases in the program. And we are focused on providing them with access to our asylum system. I do want...

MARTIN: And all those people waiting in Mexico? Or are some in other Central and South American countries?

MAYORKAS: Some, indeed, are elsewhere, Rachel. And we have built a program with international organizations in cooperation with the government of Mexico to actually build a virtual platform so that individuals who are spread out geographically can register in the program remotely. They do not need to travel. And, in fact, it's a very, very important cautionary note that they should not travel to the border. That will only increase the pressure on the humanitarian effort to provide for them carefully and safely.

MARTIN: How do you ensure that, though? - because, you know, it's one thing to say we're building this system, and eventually we'll be able to accommodate you. But don't come now. I mean, how do you prevent this from being seen as a signal that the border is more open than it has been?

MAYORKAS: Rachel, this is a very significant challenge. What we can do is message what we are capable of doing as we rebuild an asylum system, really, from scratch. I cannot overstate the fact that the prior administration completely dismantled the program. And it takes time to rebuild it in a way that addresses the humanitarian needs of the individuals who seek to access it. And what we can say, quite clearly and unequivocally, is that we are ready to begin the processing on the 19th of this month. And if people wait and they see how this works in an orderly, safe and efficient manner, that is the best ticket to greater success in the future. If, in fact, they don't wait, we will see the detriments of that failure to wait. And that, regrettably, will be an important lesson with respect to what we have cautioned.

MARTIN: But I suppose the question remains, what was the rush in making this announcement, of announcing this before you built the infrastructure? I mean, even your partner in this, Mexico's president, has said that migrants think the border is open with Donald Trump gone from office.

MAYORKAS: We are hopeful that they heed the words of caution that we have articulated. We are hopeful that they give us a chance to build the program. And we have announced this now because we are very sensitive to the level of desperation that people are suffering. And we want to explain to them and communicate quite clearly that we are focused on relieving that desperation and bringing humanity back to our processes and restoring our nation's proudest traditions. We wanted to announce that we will be starting on the 19th in an orderly and safe way, not only to protect the American public, but very importantly, to protect them as well.

MARTIN: How much of this was about just the messaging, of about saying that this is a priority even though immigration was not listed among the top four priorities of the Biden administration when they came to office?

MAYORKAS: Rachel, I am the secretary of homeland security. I oversee three agencies and thousands - tens of thousands of individuals who focus on our immigration system and fixing it. And please rest assured, it's a priority of mine.

MARTIN: Can you say more about what the protocol is going to be in preventing the spread of COVID with the influx of more migrants?

MAYORKAS: Rachel, the way our program has been designed is as follows. We have established, again, with the international organizations and the cooperation of Mexico a virtual platform so that the migrants who have been in the "Remain in Mexico" program can register remotely. They will be triaged, as I indicated earlier, with respect to prioritization, according to the date in which they first entered the program, also sensitive to their acute vulnerabilities. And the international organizations will actually test the individuals before they are processed at our ports of entry. We are doing as much of the processing and health care on the front end as we can to make sure that the process through our ports of entry and as they are admitted into the United States to make their claims of asylum are as facile and efficient as possible.

MARTIN: May I ask about another issue under your purview? President Biden also plans to tackle family separation. You'll be serving as the chairman of that task force. According to court documents from December, a court-appointed committee is still searching for the parents of 628 children separated from their families at the border. A total of more than 5,500 children have been separated from their families. Will you allow deported parents back into the United States for reunification with their kids?

MAYORKAS: Rachel, I think when we speak of these issues, I just must first articulate how heartbreaking it is to see and understand the suffering that the policies of the prior administration have caused. We already are working intensely on the work of that reunification task force. The career individuals in our department are focused on identifying where the children are, where the parents are and working on reuniting them. And we will have an executive director of that task force appointed and on board very shortly.

MARTIN: Will the reunited families be able to stay in the U.S. and begin a path toward citizenship?

MAYORKAS: That is one thing that we are considering is how we can affect the reunification and where we can do so most humanely and most sensitive to the needs of the individuals and the traumas that they have suffered. We are certainly considering reuniting those families here in the United States or in the countries of origin, whatever their needs and humanitarian rights require.

MARTIN: How do you address root causes? There's a proposal now for $4 billion to help address the problems that cause people to flee their home countries in the first place. The Obama administration tried this. What is going to be different this time around in terms of how that money is used and its effectiveness?

MAYORKAS: Rachel, we cannot overstate the push factors, the reasons why people leave the Northern Triangle countries and other countries where individuals suffer, the acute violence, the persecution of these individuals by reason of their membership in particular social groups. The Obama-Biden program was designed to address those root causes, to invest in the countries of origin, to equip them with the infrastructure and capabilities to address the violence, the economic desperation, the corruption that caused so many people to flee.

That program is not a short-term program, nor is the one that the president, President Biden, has committed to. That is not a short program either. That takes time. It's a medium- and long-term solution. And the reason why the program that was launched in the Obama-Biden administration didn't begin to achieve results is because it was cut off by the succeeding administration. And here, we are going to reinvest in that effort. And we are going to build in the Western Hemisphere a true refugee program. So it's a multipronged effort to address once and for all the root causes of which we speak.

MARTIN: Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. We hope to have you on again and continue this conversation. Secretary, thank you so much for your time.

MAYORKAS: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MECCA:83'S "2AM SAMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.