World

U.S. convinces Mexico to allow some migrants to wait south of the border

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday announced a major change in immigration policy, saying it would send non-Mexican migrants back south of the border while their U.S. asylum requests are processed.

Mexico emphasizes plan is temporary, and doesn't constitute a safe third country deal

Young migrants, part of the caravan from Central America trying to reach the United States, watch TV at a temporary shelter near the U.S. border in Tijuana on Wednesday. The Trump administration has taken steps to deny asylum claims to those who cross between ports of entry, while limiting the number who can apply per day at border crossings. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday announced a major change in immigration policy, saying it would send non-Mexican migrants back south of the border while their U.S. asylum requests are processed.

Mexico's government said that it would accept some of those migrants for humanitarian reasons, in what many will see as a concession by the new administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

"Aliens trying to game the system to get into our country illegally will no longer be able to disappear into the United States, where many skip their court dates," U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement.

"Instead, they will wait for an immigration court decision while they are in Mexico."

In response, Mexico's foreign ministry underscored it was a temporary measure and that it still has the right to admit or reject the entry of foreigners into its territory.

"Mexico's government has decided to take the following actions to benefit migrants, in particular unaccompanied and accompanied minors, and to protect the rights of those who want to start an asylum process in the United States."

The ministry said the actions taken by the Mexican and U.S. governments do not constitute a "safe third country" scheme, where migrants would have to request U.S. asylum while in Mexico. Such an agreement exists between the U.S. and Canada, but Mexico's ability to guarantee migrant safety or even handle the number of claims that would ensue is doubted.

Just this week, two Honduran teen boys who arrived in Tijuana as part of the caravan were found slain. Three people were detained by local police in connection with the homicides.

Mexico said the decision will affect those "who entered that country or had been apprehended at border entry points, and who have been interviewed by that country's immigration authorities and who have received a court date to appear before an immigration judge."

Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the outgoing chair of the House judiciary committee, praised the Trump administration for having reached the deal with Mexico.

"This agreement made under statutory authority will enable true asylum seekers to seek that status in a safe and orderly manner," Goodlatte said in a statement.

But Kennji Kizuka of the non-profit group Human Rights First said serious questions remain about implementation of the plan.

"The administration seems to have no plan," Kizuka said in a statement. "Will lawyers be able to visit their clients before hearings? Where will those hearings take place? We know that access to counsel is one of the most important factors in whether or not an asylum seeker is able to live in safety in the United States."

Metering approach limits claims

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Nov. 24 that migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border would stay in Mexico until their asylum claims were individually approved in U.S. courts.

Earlier that month, he invoked national security powers to deny asylum to migrants who enter the country between ports of entry, but the move was quickly blocked by the courts.

Thousands of people from Central America have headed to the Mexico-U.S. border. Many of them participated in migrant caravans that made headlines this fall. Most are now still waiting to realize their dream of getting into the U.S., but some are now looking for other options. 2:18

The arrival of several thousand Central Americans in Mexico's border city of Tijuana in the second major caravan of the year has prompted Trump to mobilize the U.S. military to beef up border security, while restricting the number of asylum applications accepted per day, a tactic called metering.

Trump made the migrant caravan and border security a signature issue while campaigning for Republican candidates ahead of the midterm elections in November.

The administration earlier this year engaged in a controversial process of separating children from parents and guardians who crossed illegally, citing the fact the adults would be prosecuted for committing a midsdemeanour. 

Trump has derided the process often followed by previous administrations, where those waiting on a decision for their asylum claim were released into the community. Many stayed on illegally in the U.S. either after an adverse ruling on their case or just not showing up to their immigration court date. The process can take months or even years.

Illegal crossings at the southern border have dropped dramatically compared to earlier decades although applications for asylum have seen a spike in recent years. As well, the demographics have changed compared to the 1980s and 1990s, with a greater share of migrants comprising Central American families and unaccompanied children rather than Mexicans.

With files from CBC News