MATAMOROS, Mexico – When the Supreme Court revived a cornerstone of Trump-era migration policy late last month, it looked like a major defeat for President Biden.
After all, Mr Biden had condemned the policy – which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico – as “inhuman” and suspended it on his first day in office as part of an aggressive push to abolish former President Donald J. Trump’s toughest migration policy.
But among some Biden officials, the Supreme Court order was quietly greeted with something other than dismay, current and former officials said: It brought some measure of relief.
Prior to that judgment, Mr Biden’s steps to loosen the reins of migration were quickly followed by a flood of people heading north and overwhelming the southwestern border of the United States. Concerns about migrants reached a two-decade high in July, a trend that officials fear will continue into the fall.
Concerns had already built within the Biden administration that the pace of their immigration changes may have encouraged migrants to pour into the United States, current and former officials said.
In fact, some Biden officials were already talking about a limited revival of Mr Trump’s policies to deter migration, said officials, who worked on immigration policy but were not empowered to speak publicly about the administration’s internal debates on the issue. Then came the Supreme Court order that gave the Biden administration the political cloak to take over politics in some form without provoking so much anger from the Democrats who berated Mr Trump’s border policies.
Now, officials say, they have an opportunity to step back, find a more humane version of Mr Trump’s policies and, they hope, reduce the enormous number of people arriving at the border.
“This desire to reverse Trump’s policies and do so quickly has put the Biden administration in this predicament that was not unpredictable and very sad to watch,” said Alan Bersin, US Customs Commissioner under President Barack and border protection was active in Obamas.
The politics at the center of the case – commonly known as “Remain in Mexico” – quickly became one of the most controversial elements of Mr Trump’s immigration agenda because it turned key provisions of the country’s asylum system upside down. Instead of allowing migrants to enter the United States while the courts were reviewing their claims, it kept thousands of asylum seekers waiting in run-down camps in Mexico riddled with reports of kidnappings, extortion and other serious abuse.
After Mr. Biden suspended politics, Texas and Missouri sued the government, arguing that the influx of people places “heavy and ongoing burdens” on the states. The Supreme Court refused to block a lower court ruling calling for the program to be restored and forced the Biden government to abide by it pending appeal.
But the ambivalence in the corners of the Biden administration reflects a broader concern: that the border crisis could have repercussions on the Democrats, potentially ruining hopes for a broader overhaul of the country’s migration and asylum systems.
“They are being pushed into a corner on their broader immigration agenda,” said Doris Meissner, who was the immigration and naturalization commissioner from 1993 to 2000, of the Biden government. “The only tools that are available at short notice are pretty much pure enforcement.”
After taking office, Mr Biden not only allowed migrants to apply for asylum in the United States, but also refused to expel unaccompanied children immediately and applied to freeze deportations.
As migrants flocked to the border, Republicans attacked the new administration on multiple fronts, forcing the president to back off key campaign promises and angering some in his base.
For his part, Mr Biden has relied on Mexico and Central America to strengthen their own border enforcement. But efforts have not contained much of the flows northward and have resulted in violent law enforcement attacks on migrants in those countries.
While the government tried to change the tone of welcome it had set early, it sent Vice President Kamala Harris to Guatemala to announce the closure of the border in June.
“’We heard the news that the US has opened the borders,’” says Abraham Barberi, pastor in the border town of Matamoros, about what migrants routinely tell him. So many came to town that shortly after taking office, Mr. Barberi was turning his church into a migrant shelter when mothers and their toddlers showed up at his door.
“The Biden government said, ‘We’re letting people in,'” Mr. Barberi said, zigzagging between the thin mattresses that now cover the church floor. “Everyone is flooded there.”
Thousands of asylum seekers were gradually admitted to the United States after Mr Biden ended Trump’s policy of forcing them to wait in Mexico, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks migration data. But almost immediately, said Mr Barberi, a torrent of new migrants surfaced.
So Mr. Barberi stuffed dozens of bunk beds into Bible school classrooms and filled shelves with diapers, baby food, and medicines. If the policy of staying in Mexico returns, Barberi said, “We will leave a lot of people stuck here.”
Among them is Marilin Lopéz, who fled Honduras with her son in 2019 after facing constant death threats. When she arrived in Mexico, she said a trafficker had handed her over to armed men who had held her hostage for months. After stealing the ransom and finally making it to the border, she met two of her kidnappers in Matamoros and went into hiding so that she could not attend some of her asylum appointments.
Under Mr Trump, the United States granted less than 2 percent of all asylum applicants under the Mexico stay policy, according to the Syracuse University clearing house. Most asylum seekers missed court appointments, like Ms. Lopéz, who was too scared to walk around in Matamoros, a city the State Department warns Americans not to visit for “crimes and kidnappings”.
At the end of August, after the von Biden government announced that it would reopen some of these cases, Ms. Lopéz reapplied for protection.
Days later, Ms. Lopéz received a text message from United Nations officials supporting her petition: all cases were paused while awaiting clarification following the decision of the Supreme Court.
“You have destroyed all our hope,” said Ms. Lopéz. “The Biden government made many promises and now we feel betrayed.”
It is not yet entirely clear how the Biden administration will react to the Supreme Court ruling, although officials in the United States and Mexico say discussions about introducing a new version of Remain in Mexico have already begun.
Roberto Velasco, the chief officer of Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for North America, said in a statement that the Supreme Court will not dictate Mexico’s migration policy, “which is determined and carried out with sovereignty”.
Mexico recently proposed forming a working group with the United States, Velasco said, “to deal with the extraordinary currents that both countries are seeing”. He said Mexico would oppose any move to reopen camps along the border – a move that would also be politically challenging in the United States. When Dr. Jill Biden toured Matamoros camp in 2019, she described it as heartbreaking.
“I’ve seen the pain of refugees around the world, but it felt like treason to see it on our own frontier,” said Dr. Biden after visiting on a Twitter post, adding, “This cruelty is not what we are.”