By Ted Hesson and Mimi Dwyer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government next week will begin to gradually process asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico under a controversial program put in place by former President Donald Trump, officials said.
The moves are part of a plan by the administration of President Joe Biden to end the program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), an effort complicated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and concerns over illegal immigration.
The Trump administration launched the program in 2019 as part of a wide-ranging crackdown on the ability to seek asylum in the United States, which Trump officials depicted as rife with fraud and meritless claims. The initiative forced more than 65,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers back across the border to wait for their U.S. court hearings, although far fewer are believed to still be in Mexico.
The Biden administration will begin by working to process about 25,000 migrants with active claims in the program, officials said on Thursday.
Biden vowed on the campaign trail to roll back restrictive Trump-era immigration policies, including MPP, which is informally known as "remain in Mexico." His administration suspended new entries into the program when he took office on Jan. 20, but did not immediately put forward a plan to bring those already in the program into the United States.
Republicans embracing Trump's hardline immigration views have criticized the ending of MPP and could use it as fuel for political attacks if illegal immigration increases on Biden's watch.
Top Biden officials have stressed in recent weeks that migrants should not attempt to enter the United States, saying they need more time to build up the capacity to process more asylum seekers.
"Individuals who are not eligible under this initial phase should wait for further instructions and not travel to the border," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. "Due to the current pandemic, restrictions at the border remain in place and will be enforced."
During a call with reporters on Thursday evening, three Biden administration officials described the plans to reverse the program, with the first phase beginning on Feb. 19.
Under the plan, migrants will need to register with international organizations over the internet or by phone and await instructions. An international organization will test migrants for the novel coronavirus while they are in Mexico.
Biden officials declined to identify the organizations on Thursday, saying they would be inundated with inquiries.
The migrants' claims will initially be heard at three ports of entry along the border, with organizations working to identify those in line the longest and those deemed particularly vulnerable.
At two of the ports, the Biden administration expects to process 300 people per day, a figure that could increase in time.
"We will start small," said one of the officials, all of whom requested anonymity.
The Biden officials declined to name the ports where the administration planned to begin processing, citing fears that people would rush to those locations.
The United States developed the strategy in close coordination with Mexican authorities, according to the officials.
Even while Biden moves to end one Trump program, he faces growing pressure from advocates to end another known as Title 42. The COVID-era order allows U.S. authorities to rapidly expel to Mexico migrants caught crossing the border illegally, a practice advocates say bypasses due process.
The Biden administration has not said whether it will end that program.
The effort to process MPP enrollees comes as arrests of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border have been increasing after a steep drop at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. officials in January encountered nearly 78,000 migrants attempting to cross the southern border illegally or who were denied at ports of entry, a 6% increase over the previous month.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles; Editing by Ross Colvin)