In the days after the US presidential election, as it became increasingly clear that Joe Biden would emerge victorious over President Donald Trump, asylum seekers waiting in Mexico for their immigration claims to be heard in America could not contain their excitement.
In Matamoros, a Mexican border town just south of the border from Brownsville, Texas, dozens of asylum seekers crowded into the streets, parading a poster celebrating Biden’s and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s apparent triumph.
They also held up signs conveying a collective animus for Trump, with one poster reading “hastalavista Donald Trump”, while another more prominent banner featured a clearer message: “¡FUERA TRUMP!”, or in other words: Trump, get out.
Few could say their frustrations are unfounded, with many having been forced to live in makeshift tent encampments along the Mexican side of the border for more than a year due to a hardline immigration policy rolled out by the president in January 2019.
Known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or colloquially as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the rule has forced an estimated 67,000 or more asylum seekers, including thousands of children, to wait in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in the US.
In Matamoros, some families have been waiting at a tent encampment along the Rio Grande river for more than a year, surviving a recent onslaught of tropical storms, as well as the constant threat of violence from criminal groups operating in a city that has a level 4 “do not travel” advisory from the US State Department, due to high rates of crime and violence.
Biden has made his feelings on the “Remain in Mexico” policy clear, taking aim at Trump during the second and final presidential debate in the lead-up to the 3 November election for forcing tens of thousands of asylum seekers to live “in squalor on the other side of the river”.
Many asylum seekers have been forced to live in makeshift tent encampments along the Mexican side of the border
“This is the first president in the history of the United States of America that says anybody seeking asylum has to do it in another country. That’s never happened before in America,” Biden said, noting that in the US, asylum seekers have historically been able to make their asylum claims on US soil.
While the president-elect has been vocal in speaking out against the programme, it will be his actions within his first 100 days of office that will matter most to asylum seekers waiting south of the border. The decisions he makes within those first 100 days will also provide a picture of how the president-elect will lead on immigration, an issue that has, over the past four years, divided much of America.
Already, Biden has vowed to rescind the MPP policy within his first 100 days in office. However, simply overturning the rule may be easier said than done if his administration also hopes to avoid a surge in arrivals at the southern border.
There is also the question of how exactly a Biden administration would go about rescinding the policy and what alternatives it would offer to the thousands of asylum seekers still waiting in Mexico for their immigration cases to be processed.
For those who have already been waiting at the border for months, if not more than a year, the possibility of having to wait in border encampments for even up to 100 more days will be an unbearable thought.
So far, Biden has not shed much light on exactly how he plans to go about rescinding the MPP. A request to both his campaign and transition teams on what the revocation process might look like has not received a response.
The “Remain in Mexico” policy is just one of a number of Trump-led initiatives that Biden has vowed to overturn, with the president-elect promising to fully reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, which allows people brought to the US as undocumented children, known as Dreamers, to live and work in the country, on day one, and vowing to rescind the controversial travel bans introduced by the Trump administration.
In addition to undoing much of his Republican predecessor’s work, Biden has vowed to bring serious immigration reforms to America that will see pathways to citizenship paved for millions of people who have previously been denied the possibility of becoming Americans.
Despite Biden’s lofty promises, however, immigration advocates have been wary of expecting a Biden administration to deliver major change overnight, or even within his first 100 days in office.
In a tweet published less than half an hour after the presidential election was called for Biden earlier this month, Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, the president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, vowed to “day-in and day-out hold the Biden administration accountable to its promises to immigrants, refugees, Dreamers, and the American people”.
Particularly given that Biden’s last role in the White House was as vice president to Barack Obama, who earned the moniker “deporter-in-chief” among immigration advocates, the president-elect will have much to prove when he takes office come January.
How and how quickly he responds to the plight of asylum seekers – some of the most vulnerable people in the world – who have been forced to wait south of the border for their claims to be heard could be an early indication of what’s to come.