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US Homeland Security head visits border to celebrate reopening

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited San Diego to celebrate the border’s reopening to nonessential travel. It comes as local activists criticize the Biden administration for continuing to block access to asylum seekers. KPBS Border Reporter Gustavo Solis has more.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited the San Ysidro Port of Entry Tuesday evening to celebrate the border’s recent reopening to nonessential travel.

Standing next to San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, Mayorkas focused primarily on the economic benefits of lifting the COVID-19 restrictions that limited cross-border travel.

“We are extraordinarily excited about the fact that we are seeing our economic prosperity return in full force and we are working under the president’s leadership to put the pandemic behind us once and for all and we can do so with partnership and through commitment,” he said.

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Gustavo Solis
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visits the San Ysidro Port of Entry during a press briefing on Dec. 7, 2021.

But immigrants’ rights activists standing just outside the port of entry didn’t share Mayorkas’ celebratory spirit.

They criticized the Biden administration for keeping in place two of the Trump administration’s most controversial immigration policies: Migrant Protection Protocols and Title 42.

RELATED: Explainer: What is the revived US policy on Mexico border?

Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), more commonly known as Remain in Mexico, forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their court cases are adjudicated. This policy is controversial both because it effectively denies lawyers for migrants waiting in Mexico access to their clients and because hundreds of migrants returned to Mexico have been kidnapped, assaulted, raped or killed.

Biden called the program “inhumane” and promised to end it during the 2020 presidential campaign. He fulfilled that promise shortly after taking office.

However, following a lawsuit filed by Republican officials from Missouri and Texas in August, a federal court ordered the Biden administration to reinstate the program. The program was first reinstated in El Paso and Juárez this week. It is expected to return to San Diego and Tijuana soon.

When asked about the return of MPP Tuesday, Mayorkas said the administration doesn’t agree with the program but must follow the court’s decision.

“We respectfully disagree with the court’s interpretation of the law, appealed that determination and I have issued a second memo which I have set forth my reasoning why the MPP program indeed should be terminated, it does not reflect our values as a country nor our operational requirements in respecting individuals and their wellbeing,” Mayorkas said. “Nevertheless, we are required to adhere to the court’s order under the rule of law.”

RELATED: Tijuana mayor says city not ready for return of Remain in Mexico program

Activists were quick to point out that Biden didn’t simply reinstate the program, he expanded it to include nationalities that weren’t originally included in Trump’s version of the program.

From now on, it applies to migrants from all nationalities in the Western Hemisphere – including Haitians, Brazilians and Jamaicans. Trump’s version was limited to migrants from Spanish-speaking countries.

“There is no legitimate excuse for that,” said Alex Mensing, an activist with the Innovation Law Lab. “By applying MPP to every single country in the western hemisphere, they are expanding the population of people who will be sent back to danger who will be subject to the risk of extortion of kidnapping of murder and all of these things that we’ve seen aptly documented.”

“By applying (Remain in Mexico) to every single country in the western hemisphere, they are expanding the population of people who will be sent back to danger who will be subject to the risk of extortion of kidnapping of murder and all of these things that we’ve seen aptly documented.”
Alex Mensing, activist with the Immigration Law Lab

During Tuesday’s news conference, Mayorkas did not respond to reporters’ questions about the decision to expand the MPP.

However, Mayorkas did defend the use of Title 42, another controversial Trump-era policy that the Biden administration has kept in place.
Title 42 is a public health order that allows border officials to block access to would-be asylum seekers who present themselves at the ports of entry. The stated reason for the order is to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“We are not yet in a position where we have put as a nation the pandemic entirely behind us,” Mayorkas said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is authorized under the laws of the United States under Title 42 to issue certain requirements to protect the migrant population, to protect our workforce and to protect the American public.”

Activists remain skeptical of using the pandemic to justify Title 42, especially now that vaccinated shoppers can cross the border but vaccinated asylum seekers still cannot.

Mensing noted that the second-highest ranking CDC official recently told congressional investigators who are looking into the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic that using the order to turn back migrants was a political and not a medical decision.

“Title 42, when it was originally implemented under Trump, was implemented over objections from people in CDC we later found because they spoke out about it,” Mensing said. “It’s not based on science; it’s based on racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia.”

After the press briefing, Gloria encouraged more people on both sides of the border to get COVID-19 vaccines. Increasing vaccine rates in the area, Gloria said, makes it easier for local officials to lobby the federal government on border issues.

“When we started to see the vaccination rate in Tijuana rise, that definitely caught their attention of people in Washington D.C.,” he said. “We recognize that the removal of nonessential prohibitions has been wonderful, we have additional steps we need to take. We are not unaware of that.”