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'Remain In Mexico' Policy's End Brings Renewed Hope To Asylum Seekers

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now to the border, where tens of thousands of migrants have spent nearly two years in squalid tent camps and shelters in dangerous northern Mexican cities. A Trump administration rule had kept them in Mexico while they waited out their asylum cases. The Biden administration says it will soon allow them into the United States while their cases are being processed. NPR's Carrie Kahn in Tijuana.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's been more than two years since a gang beat up 27-year-old Ruth Araceli Monroy's husband. She says the family couldn't keep up with the increasing extortion payments on their tiny bakery in El Salvador, so they fled north. She ticks off all the shelters her family has lived in since.

RUTH ARACELI MONROY: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She's up to seven when her husband, 33-year-old Juan Carlos Perla, jumps in. Don't forget the worst place, he says. In Tijuana, with no money and no work, they slept in an abandoned school bus.

JUAN CARLOS PERLA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "There were rats that would scamper over us at night," he says while stretching his hands wide to show how big they were. Their three kids, 8, 6 and 3 years old, were covered with mosquitoes and bedbug bites. Like thousands others here in Tijuana, Perla and Monroy have had to wait in Mexico for a chance to present their case before a U.S. immigration judge.

MONROY: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It just feels like it's been an eternity," says Monroy. Before January 2019, migrants who came to the U.S. southwest border seeking asylum were usually allowed into the country to live with relatives. But former President Trump instead sent those migrants back to Mexico to wait out their court cases under a program known as Remain in Mexico, or MPP. As many as 70,000 people were caught up in the program. Beginning Friday, the Biden administration says 25,000 people who still have open cases in MPP will be let into the U.S. to wait out their asylum procedures. Monroy says she's grateful to the new U.S. president.

MONROY: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We're just humble people looking for protection, for peace," she says. Migrant rights advocates say they've documented more than a thousand cases of kidnapping, assault and rape against migrants in Mexico. Alex Mensing, an advocate with Innovation Lab in Tijuana, applauds the new plan but says he's worried about the many more migrants who will be left behind. Those weren't even given a chance to enroll in MPP. Last March, the Trump administration, citing COVID concerns, began deporting asylum seekers without any due process. Instead, their names were put on waitlists managed by Mexican officials.

ALEX MENSING: There are tens of thousands of people who are on these asylum waitlists all across the border who have been waiting patiently to try to save their lives and get into the United States to be able to seek asylum. They've all been left out.

KAHN: In Tijuana alone, that list has nearly 10,000 names on it. But even those still enrolled in MPP, like 33-year-old Kensy Valladares, are worried about their fate.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: She's come to this migrant shelter, where volunteers sing religious hymns to kids, to pick up her 7-year-old daughter. She stays there while Valladares works at a nearby tortilla shop. It's been a tough two years in Tijuana with two small kids, she says. She's had four court cases in San Diego and is terrified of being sent back to Honduras. Gang members killed her oldest son and threatened her.

KENSY VALLADARES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I've told the judge, judge, you can't send me back to my country. The day you do that, my two kids and I will be dead." That's Juan Carlos Perla's fear, too. He's the father of three from El Salvador.

PERLA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "If the U.S. sends us back, they might as well send five coffins with us. We'll be killed as soon as we step off the plane," he says.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tijuana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.