Immigrant advocates and human rights experts quickly denounced the policy change as illegal and violating the rights of refugees.
Mexico’s government said that it would accept some of those migrants for humanitarian reasons, in what many will see as an early concession to U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration by Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1.
“Once implemented, individuals arriving in or entering the United States from Mexico illegally or without proper documentation may be returned to Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings. They will not be able to disappear into the United States. They will have to wait for approval to come into the United States. If they are granted asylum by a U.S. judge, they will be welcomed into America, If they are not, they will be removed to their home countries,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told a congressional committee on Thursday, describing the plan.
In response to the plan, Mexico’s foreign ministry underscored that it still has the right to admit or reject the entry of foreigners into its territory. The ministry said the actions taken by the Mexican and U.S. governments do not constitute a “safe third country” scheme, where migrants would have to request U.S. asylum while in Mexico.
In response to questioning from Democratic U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren during her congressional testimony, Nielsen said the new policy will not apply to Central American unaccompanied children, who have some special protections under U.S. law.
Serious doubts remain over whether Mexico can keep vulnerable asylum seekers safe. Authorities are investigating the deaths of two Honduran teenagers kidnapped and killed in the border city of Tijuana last weekend.
Immigrant and human rights advocates swiftly denounced the new policy, saying it violated international law and would put migrants at further risk.
The arrival of several thousand Central Americans in Tijuana about a month ago prompted Trump to mobilize the U.S. military to beef up border security. At the same time, the Trump administration has restricted the number of asylum applications accepted per day, saying they do not have the capacity to process more.
Illegal crossings at the southern border have dropped dramatically since the late 1970s, but in recent years applications for asylum have ballooned and more Central American families and unaccompanied children are migrating to the United States.