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Biden administration will urge asylum seekers to voluntarily return to Mexico

Migrants hoping to cross into the United States from Tijuana, Mexico.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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Beginning Friday morning, the Biden administration plans to offer some migrants the chance to voluntarily return to Mexico.

DHS officials are planning to inform some asylum seekers from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti who have been arrested by Border Patrol agents that they can choose a different pathway to the U.S.

“I want to let you know about a process that is currently in place for individuals in your situation,” a script for asylum officers encountering these migrants reads. The script, included in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services training materials, was obtained by The Times. “I will give you an opportunity before we start the interview to choose to follow this process if it is something you would like to do.”

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The officers are directed to inform the migrants that if they accept voluntary return, they can apply for legal entry into the U.S. if they have a financial sponsor and can pass security checks. The migrants, whom the U.S. can turn back to Mexico under a deal struck between the two countries last week, will be told they must be outside the U.S. to be eligible for that process.

“We are giving ... individuals who are in our custody the option of voluntarily returning to the country from which they came because of the consequence of a removal,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at a news conference Wednesday, alluding to the plan.

The voluntary return script is part of the Biden administration’s wide-ranging effort to deal with what is expected to be an increase in migration at the southern border after Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that allowed border agents to quickly turn back migrants, expires this week. Republicans and others, including independent Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona and officials in border towns, have urged the administration to limit the numbers.

“While it’s wonderful that the administration is announcing things like a 1,500-troop deployment and these new processing centers — which will not be operational by next Friday — those are good things,” Sinema said last week, according to CBS News. “Those are aspirational. That’s not the same as operational. And so what I’m asking for and have been for two years, is for the administration to make concrete plans.”

The administration has said it will send troops to help at the border, along with the asylum officers and judges needed to process migrants and rapidly deport those who do not have a right to stay in the U.S.

Another piece of the administration’s effort to deter migrants from crossing without authorization will go into place this week as well.

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Starting later this week, the U.S. will implement a controversial new policy that limits asylum for migrants who cross through a third country, like Mexico, en route to the U.S. and did not apply for protection there. Although there are exceptions, migrants who cross the border without authorization will likely find it difficult to obtain asylum under the new policy. Immigrant advocates, such as the ACLU, are expected to sue over the effort soon after it is implemented.

To avoid denial and deportation, the migrants from the four countries are offered a way out under the voluntary return plan.

“You may choose to depart the United States voluntarily a single time and still be eligible for the parole process. You are being given an opportunity now to withdraw your application for admission to the United States and return to Mexico so that you remain eligible for that parole process,” officers will tell migrants, according to the script.

The migrant will then be warned that if they fail their initial asylum screening — known as a credible fear interview — they could be deported and barred from the country for five years.

“Would you like to voluntarily withdraw your application for admission at this time so that you can return to Mexico and remain eligible to request access to the parole process I just described?” officers will ask.

The Department of Homeland Security has said that migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela who have verified sponsors in the U.S. will continue to be allowed to apply to enter the country legally. Since January, up to 30,000 individuals per month from those countries have been able to apply to live and work in the U.S. The process to apply to the U.S. began earlier this year, at the same time the Biden administration expanded the use of Title 42 to allow it to deport migrants from the four countries to Mexico. Since then, thousands have successfully been able to enter the U.S. using the new pathway.

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The migrants, who can apply from anywhere, are required to have passed rigorous background checks and have a sponsor that is willing to financially support them for the two-year period they are allowed in the U.S.

If a migrant declines voluntary removal, they could be offered another chance to leave later in the process.

Migrants who fail to qualify for asylum under the new Biden rule will be told that they will not be screened for asylum, but for a different form of protection that is harder to get.

“Before I continue, I would like to offer you another chance to withdraw your application for admission like I offered you at the beginning of the interview,” officers will tell those migrants. “Do you want me to repeat the explanation of that offer?”

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