By Ted Hesson and Dave Graham
(Reuters) - The Biden administration will restart a controversial Trump-era border program that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for U.S. immigration hearings, in keeping with a federal court order, U.S. and Mexican officials said on Thursday.
The United States will take steps to address Mexico's humanitarian concerns with the program, the officials said, including offering vaccines to migrants and exempting more categories of people deemed vulnerable.
Migrants also will be asked if they have a fear of persecution or torture in Mexico before being enrolled in the program and have access to legal representation, U.S. officials said during a call with reporters on Thursday.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, ended the policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) soon after his inauguration in January. But a federal judge ruled Biden's rescission did not follow proper procedure and in August ordered its reinstatement. The U.S. government said it had to wait for Mexico's agreement before the policy could restart. "The United States accepted all the conditions that we set out," said one Mexican official.
At the same time, the Biden administration is still actively trying to end the MPP program, issuing a new rescission memo in the hopes it will resolve the court's legal concerns.
The policy was a cornerstone of former Republican President Donald Trump's hard line immigration policies and sent tens of thousands of people who entered at the U.S.-Mexico land border back to Mexico to wait months - sometimes years - to present their cases at U.S. immigration hearings held in makeshift courtrooms near the border.
The MPP program will restart with a small number of migrants at a single U.S. border crossing on Monday, but will eventually expand to San Diego, California and El Paso, Laredo and Brownsville in Texas, one of the U.S. officials said.
The reinstatement of MPP adds to a confusing mix of immigration policies in place at the U.S.-Mexico border, where arrests for crossing illegally have hit record highs.
Biden promised what he called a more humane approach to immigration. But even as he tried to end MPP, his administration continued to implement a Trump-era public health order known as Title 42, which allows border authorities to rapidly expel migrants without giving them a chance to claim asylum. Nearly two-thirds of the record 1.7 million migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year have been expelled under the Title 42 order.
Migrants caught at the U.S.-Mexico border will first be evaluated to determine whether they can be quickly expelled under Title 42, one U.S. official said. If not, migrants from the Western Hemisphere could be placed in the reworked MPP program, the official said.
Exceptions will be made for migrants with health issues, the elderly and those at risk of discrimination in Mexico, particularly based on gender identity and sexual orientation, a different U.S. official said.
Immigration advocates argue MPP exposed migrants to violence and kidnappings in dangerous border cities, where people camped out as they waited for their hearings.
The United States and Mexico will arrange transportation for migrants waiting in Mexican shelters so that they can attend their court hearings in the United States, a third U.S. official said. But local officials in Mexico said that many border shelters are already full and overwhelmed.
Migrants with cases in Laredo and Brownsville will be placed in shelters further away from the U.S.-Mexico border to avoid security risks in Mexican border cities, the official said.
(Reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City and Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Daniel Wallis)