Border shift: Biden admin cuts deal to reinstate Trump's "inhumane" Remain in Mexico policy

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em … especially when courts order you to do so. Late yesterday, the Biden administration finally cut a deal with Mexico to return to the Trump-era policy for asylum applicants that it rushed to reverse. They’re apparently not even going to tweak it, as long as Joe Biden has to obey a federal court order:

The Biden administration has reached a deal with the Mexican government to restart the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program that requires asylum seekers to wait outside U.S. territory while their claims are processed, two U.S. officials and a Mexican government official said late Wednesday.

The governments are planning to announce the agreement Thursday, according to two of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the agreement before a formal announcement. Implementation of the program, formerly known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), is expected to begin next week in San Diego and in the Texas cities of Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso, one official said.

The new iteration of the program “will be fairly close to the previous version,” said another official with knowledge of the plans.

The Trump administration used the MPP program to return more than 60,000 asylum seekers across the border to Mexico, where they were often preyed upon by criminal gangs, extortionists and kidnappers. President Biden denounced MPP as inhumane and quickly ended it after taking office, but Republican officials in Texas and Missouri sued the administration in federal court and won an injunction in August forcing the government to resurrect the program.

That’s, um … quite a change:

Frankly, I’m surprised that they bothered to cut the deal at all. The Biden administration had signaled that it would comply with the court order, but Biden could easily have made the terms so unpalatable to Mexico that they could refuse to re-enter the MPP. That would have allowed the White House to go back to the federal court and claim that reinstating the MPP was now impossible, and that the courts couldn’t hold them to it any longer, especially since foreign policy is at the zenith of executive-branch authority.

Instead, it appears that Biden and his team went out of their way to accommodate Mexico to reinstate the Trump policy. Why? They may have really decided that Biden can’t beat Trump on this point and decided to join him instead. The initial moves to just simply reverse Trump’s border policies without any rational or comprehensive plans to replace them touched off a historic border crisis, and Biden’s been unable to tamp it down ever since. This looks suspiciously like throwing in the towel.

Let’s not forget that this policy worked, as the AP reminds us:

About 70,000 asylum-seekers have been subject to the policy, which President Donald Trump introduced in January 2019 and which Biden suspended on his first day in office.

Illegal border crossings fell sharply after Mexico, facing Trump’s threat of higher tariffs, acquiesced in 2019 to the policy’s rapid expansion.

Mexico might have reached the same calculation as Biden this time even without the tariff threats. The incentives that Biden created in both rhetoric and policy by cancelling MPP once again transformed them into Central America’s doormat as waves of illegal immigrants rolled across their borders. Putting the Trump-era disincentives back in place benefits Mexico as much as it does the US, especially if the Biden administration is willing to put more resources into asylum review. It’s not exactly a short-term win for Mexico, but longer-term? Almost certainly if it keeps migrants from testing their luck on long-shot asylum requests.

One point missing from all the media reports on this: what happened to Biden’s pledge to end this policy through the Administrative Procedure Act process? The White House pledged two months ago after losing in court that it would push through the policy change to eliminate Remain in Mexico in a proper manner so that it couldn’t get reversed in court. Has that even begun? Or has Biden fully embraced the supposedly “dangerous, inhumane” policy of his predecessor because he can’t come up with any better plan?