The Biden administration says it is officially ending the controversial Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases wind through court, often in grueling conditions for months or years. We speak to attorney and activist Efrén Olivares with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project about the impact of this policy, as well as ongoing efforts to reunite families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy in 2018. Olivares represented some of the children and their parents, and wrote about them in his new book, My Boy Will Die of Sorrow: A Memoir of Immigration from the Front Lines.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
The Biden administration said Monday it’s officially ending the controversial Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy and will no longer force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are resolved in U.S. courts over months and years. The announcement came just hours after a judge lifted an injunction, in effect since December, blocking Biden officials from terminating the program, formally known as the MPP, the Migrant Protection Protocols. The Supreme Court ruled in June the Biden administration had the authority to end the policy.
Some 70,000 asylum seekers were subjected to MPP from January 2019 to January 2021, when President Biden suspended the policy, fulfilling a campaign promise. But a federal court in Texas last December ordered the administration to restart the program after legal challenges from Texas and Missouri. Since then, nearly 6,000 more asylum seekers were enrolled in MPP. Most have been forced to live in squalid makeshift border camps. Others found shelter in towns near the U.S.-Mexico border. This is an asylum seeker from Nicaragua who was living at a border camp in Matamoros, Mexico, in 2020.
ASYLUM SEEKER: [translated] I know this is not the ideal place for any child or any teenager. But while we’re here, we’re doing our best to save them from mental health problems. Sometimes the sadness is overwhelming, but you have to stay strong. I want my granddaughters to have a better future.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Efrén Olivares, the deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, formerly with the Texas Civil Rights Project in South Texas, where we met him. His new book is My Boy Will Die of Sorrow: A Memoir of Immigration from the Front Lines.
Efrén, welcome back to Democracy Now! If you can talk about the significance of the end of MPP? And then we want to ask you about the separation of children and how many are still separated.
EFRÉN OLIVARES: Hi, Amy. Good morning. Thank you for having me.
Yeah, the end of MPP, or “Remain in Mexico,” is a long time coming. We were pleased to see that the administration suspended the program right at the beginning of the Biden administration. Unfortunately, litigation and the court got in the way and had prevented it from fully winding down the program, and, in fact, the administration was forced to enroll additional people in MPP. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled and that the district court has dissolved the injunction, there’s nothing stopping the Biden administration from promptly and orderly disenrolling everyone who is in MPP and allowing them to face their asylum cases or immigration proceedings from the United States, where they will have access to counsel, the ability to gather evidence, present that evidence, and everything that comes with presenting an immigration or asylum case.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Efrén, you worked legally on behalf of many immigrant families that were separated under the “zero tolerance” policy of former President Trump. What’s the status with those separated families today?
EFRÉN OLIVARES: Well, it varies. There’s a lot of situations. Some families have been reunited. Many are litigating their cases against the government as a result of that policy, which, remarkably, the Biden administration is defending in court. There are dozens of lawsuits still ongoing, and the Biden administration is defending Trump policies and Trump administration officials.
And some families, unfortunately, are still separated. Some children who were taken from their parents are still in the U.S., either with relatives or in the foster care system. And some parents were deported to their home countries, have not been located. So, not every family has been reunited — excuse me. And some never will, unfortunately.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, the Biden administration is still enforcing the Title 42 pandemic policy, and nearly 2 million asylum seekers were expelled without due process as a result of Title 42. What do you see happening with that policy in the future?
EFRÉN OLIVARES: Well, now the CDC and a host of scientists and public health experts have confirmed that there’s no public health justification for Title 42 expulsions. Unfortunately, the ending of Title 42, of that practice of expelling immigrants and asylum seekers, has also been stopped in litigation. The administration has said multiple times that it intends to end that policy, but the courts have prevented it from doing so. We were pleased to see that in Congress there was no codification of Title 42. So, as the administration continues to litigate that against Texas and other states, we look forward to having a science-based policy around the pandemic, as well as a commonsense immigration and asylum policy, so that those seeking safety in this country have an orderly way to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip. I mean, as you’ve said, you represented many of the separated families at the border and have spoken about this over the years on Democracy Now!, as you write about in your book, My Boy Will Die of Sorrow: A Memoir of Immigration from the Front Lines. This is what you write about a day in 2018 in McAllen, Texas. You said, “I came back to the Bentsen Tower. Standing outside, on the corner of 17th and Austin streets, I waited as the reporter set up the camera. Renée Feltz, with Democracy Now!, had traveled from New York City to McAllen to cover the separations. She was the first reporter who reached out to us about the brewing crisis, and we saw this as an opportunity to break the story to a wider audience, which was not yet aware of what we were seeing and hearing in court every day.” Let’s go to Renée’s interview in 2018 outside that federal courthouse in McAllen. A GEO Group private prison transport bus backed up behind you.
EFRÉN OLIVARES: These are the buses in which the immigrants, many of whom are parents who have had their children taken away, are transported to and from the courthouse, probably to a CBP detention facility. The sad thing is that many of those people have children, and many of them were separated this morning, before they came to court, and were led to believe that when they return to the detention facility, their children are going to be there. But we know that the children will not be there, because the government is separating them.
AMY GOODMAN: So, it may surprise some to know, Efrén Olivares, that some 1,000 children are still separated at this point. I believe when the Biden administration came in, they put Dr. Jill Biden, President Biden’s wife, the first lady, overall in charge of reunification. If you can talk about the effect — in your book, you also write about your own experience so many years ago being separated from your family.
EFRÉN OLIVARES: Yes. You know, that interview that you played, it was before this crisis had made national news, and we were struggling to break through and make sure that the public knew what was really happening at the border. And one of the saddest things is that we will probably never know how many families were actually separated. Given the government’s intentional lack of record-keeping, we will not know. Many families were separated, and the children ended up at a shelter, but the shelter never knew that that child had been traveling with a family, with a parent, a father or a mother, because there was no record-keeping. And if the children were too little to be able to explain that, we will never know truly how many children were separated.
And as far as the lifelong consequences of that, you know, there’s been widespread reporting on the trauma that that experience, the violent ripping apart of a child from his or her mom or her dad — you know, just thinking of that audio that leaked, if that doesn’t convey what this policy caused to children and to parents. It is still hard to understand how in this country, in 2018 and ongoing, it was possible to see such a cruel violation of human rights against children.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Efrén Olivares, we’re going to do a post-show interview with you, post it online at democracynow.org, to hear about your own life experience, as you write about in your book, your book My Boy Will Die of Sorrow: A Memoir of Immigration from the Front Lines. Efrén Olivares, deputy legal director now at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.