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Asylum-Seekers Rejoice As Biden Administration Begins Processing Claims

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tens of thousands of Central American migrants have been stranded in Mexico since the Trump administration enacted a controversial policy that became known as the Remain in Mexico program. The policy stopped them from entering the United States while they waited for their asylum status. Today, the Biden administration said it will begin phasing in a new process for people seeking asylum on the southern U.S. border. NPR's Carrie Kahn has followed the plights of these migrants for years, and she joins us from Tijuana. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Begin by reminding us what the Remain in Mexico policy meant for migrants who wanted to come to the U.S.

KAHN: Sure. Essentially, it just meant that access to the U.S. asylum process was just made very, very difficult and much more challenging to even get the chance to ask for asylum. Migrants who arrived at the border beginning in 2019 were given a court date and sent back into Mexico to wait out the process. And that was for everybody. Central - it's not just Mexicans. If you were Central American, Haitian, Congolese, Cuban, everyone was sent back to Mexico to wait. And at the height of the program, they said 70,000 migrants were sent back to wait in Mexico.

And before what would happen is somebody told a U.S. border guard that they had credible fear of being sent back home. Something would happen to them. Then they would be processed and released to relatives or somewhere in the U.S. to wait out the asylum court process. But it could take years for that process to complete. And President Trump - former President Trump then at that time said he wanted to deter applicants who he said were fraudulently using the asylum process for an easy entry into the U.S. And he put in this program, Remain in Mexico, in place at that time.

SHAPIRO: So now that the Biden administration has announced this new policy, you're there in Tijuana. What are you hearing from asylum-seekers?

KAHN: Ari, it was interesting, and I found it really surprising. You know, I thought I would hear euphoria or relief, but the people I talked to, they were just really subdued. This one woman I talked to last night, she's 33 years old. She has two small kids with her. Her name is Kensy Valladares, and she's from Honduras. And she came to the U.S. border here in Tijuana in 2019 after her son was killed by gang members and she and another son were threatened. And I asked her about, you know, President Biden's plan to let the migrants into the United States, and here's what she said.

KENSY VALLADARES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: So pretty much she's saying she is hopeful that he will make good on his promises, but she's heard a lot of promises these last year, and she just doesn't want to get her hopes up. And it was just so surprising to hear that. You know, migrants weren't effusive. They were just all very cautious. It was just so sobering to hear that. It's been a rough two years for many people waiting for some answers, you know, to their pleas and their requests for safety and asylum from the U.S.

SHAPIRO: You say it's been a rough two years. Tell us about the conditions people have been living in there.

KAHN: Well, it's like, people - you know, it's been about two years that they've been waiting, and many are in these - many have come with small children, very small children. And thousands are migrants and are waiting in these squalid tent camps that are right along the border on the Mexican side. And these border Mexican - these Mexican border cities are dangerous. And the migrants have been preyed upon by organized crime gangs and corrupt Mexican officials. Here in Tijuana, on the other side of the San Diego, Calif., border, a lot of people are in shelters or really dingy hotels. I've been talking to one family that lived in an abandoned bus on the street for a while. So it's just rough.

They're also saying, you know, they have to make these court hearings. They have to cross the border and make these court hearings. And that's tough to do on deadlines, too. People don't have computers. They don't have Internet connection. They don't have lawyers. Some missed their court dates, and they've been thrown out of the program. And people are wondering, you know, what's going to happen to all those people for some reason were removed from Remain in Mexico? One lawyer told me, you know, one person missed their U.S. asylum court date because they were kidnapped in Mexico. So there's a lot of questions what's going to happen to those people.

SHAPIRO: And in just a couple sentences, what's the reaction from the Mexican government been to this shift in policy?

KAHN: Well, today the president said, quote, "it's good that the U.S. will let these people into the U.S." He also said that - is echoing what U.S. officials are saying to migrants. They shouldn't believe that the border is open now. They should wait and not come now and not to believe what human smugglers are telling them, that the border's wide open under Biden.

SHAPIRO: That is Carrie Kahn in Tijuana, Mexico, on the Biden administration's new asylum policy. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome, Ari. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "A WALK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.