By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 240 pro-migrant organizations urged President Joe Biden on Friday to terminate two border policies that block or reduce access to asylum in the United States, saying the policies violate U.S. law and international treaty obligations.
Biden, a Democrat, came into office in January promising to roll back the hardline immigration legacy of his Republican predecessor former President Donald Trump, but advocates - many who supported his candidacy - have grown frustrated with the slow pace of reform.
In a letter addressed to Biden and other top officials, the groups called the policies "illegal."
While Biden tried to end one of the policies, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a federal judge ordered reinstatement in response to a lawsuit. But advocates criticized the administration for then expanding the MPP program to apply to all migrants from the Western Hemisphere when it restarted in early December.
Under the MPP program, non-Mexican asylum seekers caught at the U.S.-Mexico border can be sent to Mexico to await U.S. court dates, potentially facing kidnappings and other harms in dangerous border towns.
In restarting MPP, the administration said it would add new humanitarian protections, like health screenings, access to COVID-19 vaccines and lawyers. But a report released on Thursday by the advocacy group Human Rights First said those promises had not materialized.
The organization interviewed 16 returned migrants and found most said they were never informed of their right to speak with a lawyer while in U.S. custody. The report also said U.S. officials had not adequately screened migrants for health vulnerabilities that might allow them to remain in the United States, among other criticisms.
A White House spokesperson said the administration was required to comply with the court-ordered restart "in good faith" and still disagreed with the policy.
As of Thursday, 161 migrants had been returned to Mexico since the MPP restart, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). All returns took place in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.
The other Trump policy left in place by Biden and criticized by the groups is known as Title 42. It allows U.S. authorities to rapidly expel migrants caught at U.S. border during the COVID-19 pandemic without giving them a chance to seek asylum.
The White House has deferred questions about policy to the U.S. Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which implemented it in March 2020.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Sam Holmes)