TIJUANA, Mexico — Two years and 21 days after the first asylum seeker was walked back from San Diego to Tijuana under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, a small group of asylum seekers was escorted in the other direction to wait out immigration court cases in the United States.
Under President Biden’s direction, border officials Friday began processing the first of the estimated 26,000 people who have pending cases in U.S. immigration courts and have been waiting in Mexico under the Trump administration’s program, officially known as Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.
The program radically altered the asylum system. It became one of Trump’s most successful attempts to restrict access to asylum and deter migrants from Latin America from seeking refuge in the United States.
Biden last month ordered a pause on adding new asylum seekers to the program but has not ended it for those already waiting in Mexico. The U.S. State Department in a press release Friday referred to the beginning of processing MPP returnees as a “drawdown,” language typically used for military operations overseas.
Two other ports of entry along the border — Brownsville and El Paso, Texas — are expected to start similar processing as early as next week.
The group of 25 asylum seekers discreetly entered the San Ysidro Port of Entry Friday morning unnoticed by journalists gathered on the south side of the border. Nor were they noticed by hundreds of other asylum seekers in the plaza outside the port of entry hoping to gain refuge north of the border.
Jewish Family Service of San Diego confirmed before 11 a.m. that the 25 people who had been in the MPP program are in the organization’s care and have been quarantined in hotel rooms under the direction of county public health officials. Among them were six families and five individual adults from Honduras, Peru, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Cuba.
“This is a really different experience than two and a half years ago, when we got the call on our hotline that moms and kids were on the streets of San Diego,” said Chief Executive Michael Hopkins, referring to the origins of Jewish Family Service’s migrant shelter when, under the Trump administration, border officials began releasing asylum-seeking families without helping them get to their final U.S. destinations.
The first asylum seekers to enter the U.S. Friday were selected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, in coordination with local organizations that work with migrants in Tijuana, U.N. officials said Thursday in a press call.
The 25 asylum seekers went Thursday to the Centro Integrador migrant shelter in Tijuana to be tested for the coronavirus by the U.N. International Organization for Migration. They remained at the shelter overnight before being transported to the border.