Citing the global response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration on Monday moved to postpone all court hearings for the thousands of asylum-seekers it has returned to Mexico. 

The Justice Department said hearings for migrants in the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program that were initially slated to take place before April 22 would be postponed. A spokesperson for the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the Justice Department branch that oversees the nation’s immigration courts, said the decision will ensure asylum-seekers in the program could have their “day in court,” while safeguarding the health of migrants, officials and U.S. citizens.

Though the spokesperson said the “Remain in Mexico” policy was not being “canceled,” Monday’s move will partially paralyze the centerpiece of the Trump administration’s restrictive asylum policies designed to discourage migration to the U.S. southern border. Under the policy, known officially as the Migrant Protections Protocols, or MPP, U.S. border officials have returned more than 60,000 Latin American migrants to northern Mexico, requiring them to wait there as their asylum cases are adjudicated. 


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In its statement, the Justice Department spokesperson said asylum-seekers in Mexico who are scheduled to appear before an immigration judge in the U.S. through April 22 should report to U.S. border officials on their previously scheduled court dates to get new government documents and a new hearing date.

Monday’s move comes days after the Trump administration invoked sweeping immigration restriction powers in public health law to allow officials to rapidly turn away migrants who cross both the northern and southern borders without authorization. The restrictions, which the administration said were necessary because of the pandemic, bar the entry of migrants without proper documents, even at ports of entry.

Though officials did not clarify whether asylum-seekers in the MPP policy would be allowed inside the U.S. to attend their hearings in light of the new measures, immigration attorneys reported Monday morning that migrants in the program were denied entry.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department cancelled all hearings for immigrants who were not detained because of the coronavirus outbreak. But the department has come under withering criticism for refusing to close most courts or delay hearings for immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, despite a flurry of calls do so by judges, prosecutors and lawyers.

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