SAN DIEGO — Moments after his immigration case was heard Wednesday, a 51-year-old Cuban asylum seeker sat on a bench in the back of the courtroom and wept openly.
He had just learned that he would be allowed to fight his case from inside the United States instead of returning again to Tijuana under the "Remain in Mexico" program.
He'd been waiting more than two months in Tijuana for his immigration court case under the program, known officially as Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP.
"In this moment, I am free," he told the Union-Tribune in Spanish a few minutes after he was officially released from custody. "Before, I was not free."
The man was among the first migrants released from MPP this past week with the Biden administration's announcement that the program was ending, following a lengthy legal battle in federal court. However, days later, most of those enrolled in the program are still waiting to be let into the United States.
The long-anticipated and yet abrupt end to the program meant confusion on the first days — not only for the migrants themselves but also for those who work in the program, including immigration judges, private and government attorneys, and even the contracted guards who keep MPP enrollees in custody while they're in U.S. immigration court.
This marks the Biden administration's second attempt to end the Trump-created policy. Following a campaign promise, President Joe Biden early on in his term terminated the program. Then after a lawsuit in Texas, his administration was ordered to reimplement it. This second wind down comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered in June that the administration could end Remain in Mexico.
But the administration didn't act on the Supreme Court ruling until Monday, when the district court that had initially ordered the program's reimplementation officially vacated its decision. The Department of Homeland Security announced hours later that people would be unenrolled when they came onto U.S. soil for their next court hearings.
This process is different from the previous wind down, which involved coordination among international agencies and local nonprofits to bring dozens of asylum seekers into the U.S. each morning.
So far one to three people per day have been taken out of the program in San Diego for a total of eight since Tuesday. At that pace, the wind down could take months to bring in the hundreds waiting in Tijuana.