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With 'Remain in Mexico' program, U.S. and Mexico grapple with similar challenge

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

This week, the Biden administration restarted the controversial program commonly known as Remain In Mexico. The program was a signature immigration policy for former President Donald Trump, and it forces migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to wait south of the border while their applications are being processed. Advocates for asylum seekers say the policies create extraordinary hardships. President Biden himself called the program inhumane and moved to end the program on Day 1 of his administration, but federal judges in Texas and Missouri ordered the administration to revive it.

We wanted to learn more about how this restart of the "Remain In Mexico" program affects the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, and for that, we called upon Shannon O'Neil. She's vice president and senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council for Foreign Relations. Shannon O'Neil, welcome.

SHANNON O'NEIL: Thank you for having me.

FOLKENFLIK: The Biden administration hammered out new agreements defining the program and its conditions with the Mexican government before putting this policy back in place. What did those agreements involve?

O'NEIL: So this time around, it is the same process in that people will wait in Mexico in order to be heard and have their asylum cases heard. But there are a few things that are different than the last time under the Trump administration. The U.S. government is going to provide more health care, vaccines and medical care to the migrants who are waiting in Mexico. They will provide resources for shelter, for schooling, for other types of support. They have promised the Mexican government that they will expedite these cases so they will be resolved in six months or less, and they've also promised overall this program, there'll be more legal counsel available for those migrants who are part of the program. So this is a bit of a different focus and a more expanded program and bilateral cooperation than we saw in the previous version.

FOLKENFLIK: How realistic is that six-month time frame you mentioned, given how long these cases typically take and the backlog that already exists?

O'NEIL: I mean, this is the real question. The Biden administration is going to dedicate specific courts to these cases, so they won't enter the longer backlog that we have here in the United States. And one thing we have seen the Biden administration do over the last almost year long is rebuild the immigration processing part of the U.S. government, which is something that had really been eroded under the Trump administration. So there is more capacity to process these cases than in the past. There will be dedicated resources to process these cases. But it is a real question if they can speed it up because it is a challenge the U.S. faces to - since there are so many people coming to the border. And more look to come in the months to come.

FOLKENFLIK: The Biden administration has also expanded this program to include non-Spanish speakers. What's at play there?

O'NEIL: So there we see Haitians, which, of course, this last summer, we saw a good number of Haitians come. It could be other people from the Caribbean. Or it could be people coming from all over the world because Mexico and the U.S. southern border has increasingly been a place where people come to try to get into the United States from all over, not just from Mexico or from Central America.

FOLKENFLIK: So people from Asia, people from Africa, people from Europe, they may use that as the conduit in.

O'NEIL: It's true. And this is a program where some of them at least would be put into this program. It's worth saying, though, that this Remain In Mexico program is not for everyone who shows up at the U.S. border and even not everyone who shows up not from Mexico or Central America. There are other ways that migrants are processed. Sometimes, they're allowed into the United States. Sometimes, they're just sent back to their country and deported directly. So there's lots of different processes. This isn't the only way that a person showing up at the U.S. southern border might have a hearing in the U.S.

FOLKENFLIK: So let's talk about what this means for the U.S. and Mexico together. How crucial is the handling of migrants at the southern border, of which there's been a sharp rise this year, to the state of relationship between the U.S. and Mexico?

O'NEIL: This is really a pillar of U.S.-Mexico relations - how you handle the movement of people. And historically, often, it was the movement of Mexicans coming into the United States, and then, as we've seen, obviously, over the last few years, it has been more the movement of Central Americans or more migrants in general. And so it is an important part of the relationship and of the back and forth. It's interesting, too, because it's increasingly important for Mexico because Mexico is not just a country that sends migrants, but it's now a country that receives migrants. And you see tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of migrants choosing to stay in Mexico from Central America, from all of these different places.

So Mexico itself is grappling with many of the challenges the U.S. has in the past to welcome these individuals in, to process them through their own immigration systems and find a place for them in their society. So in there, there's a shared challenge and perhaps interest in both countries in managing these flows of people from all over the world.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been hearing from Shannon O'Neil. She is vice president and senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council for Foreign Relations. Shannon O'Neil, thanks for joining us today.

O'NEIL: It was my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPULOUS' "CANOE CANOA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.