The US has returned the first two migrants to Mexico since restarting a Trump-era programme to remove asylum seekers from US soil, officials said on Wednesday, as the Biden administration grapples with pressure to curb immigration.
The US and Mexico last week agreed to relaunch the Migrant Protection Protocols, which oblige asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for US immigration hearings, in keeping with a federal court order.
Mexico made the restart conditional on Washington meeting certain criteria, including offering Covid-19 vaccines to asylum seekers and exempting vulnerable people from expulsion.
The first two migrants returned under the revamped programme entered Mexico at a border crossing in Ciudad Juarez opposite El Paso, Texas, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Mexico reported.
One of the two men, who identified himself as Enrique Manzanares from Nicaragua, said he felt a little sad, but gave thanks to God that he was still alive.
“In the end, nothing was lost,” Mr Manzanares told Reuters. “Some of us make it, others don't.”
A Mexican official confirmed the restart, saying it would be limited on Wednesday to the two migrants.
The IOM said the two people were given Covid-19 tests once they entered Mexico and that IOM representatives took them to a shelter in Ciudad Juarez that had been approved by US and Mexican authorities.
The UN-backed organisation also called for the protocols to be ended as soon as possible, describing it in a statement as “inhumane and contrary to international law".
A representative for US Customs and Border Protection said the Department of Homeland Security had begun the court-mandated reimplementation of the protocols at one location.
“For operational security reasons, [the department] is not sharing details such as location of initial returns or number of individuals enrolled,” the representative said.
Once fully operational, the returns to Mexico will take place at seven ports of entry in San Diego, Calexico, Nogales, El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo and Brownsville, the border agency said.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has struggled to reverse many hardline immigration policies put in place by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
One policy included officers intentionally separating families who arrived at the border, a practice the Trump administration believed would stop the inflow of migrant families.
“It is unconscionable to separate children from their parents as a means to deter migration,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
“I have met with separated families and heard firsthand of the immense trauma they have suffered. We have an obligation to reunite separated families and ensure this cruel practice never happens again.”
Mr Biden is facing a record number of migrant arrests at the US-Mexico border.
But he ended Mr Trump's protocols soon after his inauguration in January as he sought to pursue what he called a more humane approach to immigration, including reunifying families and enacting a zero-tolerance policy against family separations. However, a federal judge ruled Mr Biden's move did not follow proper procedure and in August ordered the programme reinstated.
Misael Hernandez, a migration expert at Mexican think tank Colef, said Mexico is facing a challenge coping with the new flow of expulsions, with many shelters in the north already struggling to handle increasing numbers of migrant arrivals from the south.
“This is a setback in immigration policy between Mexico and the United States,” he said. “And an example of Trump's power in Congress and US courts to go against Biden's promises.”
Reuters contributed to this report