A group of 25 asylum seekers was allowed into the United States at San Ysidro on Friday, beginning an effort to unwind one of former President Donald Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies.
President Joe Biden pledged during his campaign that he would immediately rescind the Trump policy, known officially as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and informally as “remain in Mexico,” under which more than 65,000 mostly Central American asylum seekers were denied entry and sent back across the border pending court hearings.
Most returned home but some stayed in Mexico in sometimes squalid or dangerous conditions, vulnerable to kidnapping and other violence.
Now they will be allowed into the United States to wait for their cases to be heard in immigration courts.
The effort started slowly on Friday at San Ysidro, where the 25 asylum seekers were allowed to cross the border and will now quarantine in a local hotel with the assistance of Jewish Family Service of San Diego.
“We applaud the Biden-Harris Administration and we are optimistic that this is the first of many steps to rebuild our immigration system and restore the asylum process,” said JFS and its partners in the San Diego Rapid Response Network.
Rosario, a 40-year-old Nicaraguan asylum seeker, and her nine-year-old son were among the first group to cross.
Rosario was relieved to reach the U.S. after a 21-month wait in Tijuana, where she said she was afraid to go outside for fear of being targeted as a migrant, she told Reuters. Her son missed nearly two years of school during that time.
“When we put our feet down in San Ysidro, and we knew we had gotten there, we smiled from ear to ear,” said Rosario, who is seeking political asylum and asked to be identified by her middle name for her safety.
On the Tijuana side of the border crossing, about 300 migrants gathered in the morning, even as Mexican officials told them they would not be able to cross without registering ahead of time. Some had slept outside the previous night.
The effort will expand in the coming week to two additional ports of entry in Texas, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman.
Biden began overturning Trump’s hardline immigration policies on Jan. 20, his first day in office, when he lifted a travel ban on 13 mostly Muslim-majority and African countries, halted construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and reversed other measures.
Democrats on Thursday formally introduced Biden’s sweeping immigration bill in Congress, a measure that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
The Biden administration is treading carefully in its efforts to process asylum seekers, wary that the policy shift could encourage more migrants to trek to the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. officials say anyone who seeks to enter and does not have an active MPP case will be immediately expelled.
The administration estimates that only 25,000 people out of the more than 65,000 enrolled in MPP still have active immigration court cases and is set to begin dealing with that group on Friday. But it has cautioned that the efforts will take time.
Biden officials say they expect eventually to process 300 people per day.
A group of Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Biden on Feb. 10 that said allowing the asylum seekers stranded in Mexico to enter the United States “sends the signal that our borders are open.”
The United States, Mexico and international organizations have scrambled in recent days to figure out how to register migrants, transport them to the border, test them for COVID-19 and get them to their destinations in the United States, people familiar with the effort said.
Reuters contributed to this article.