With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past border updates here.
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DHS builds up capacity for protection-seeking migrants as numbers rise
Right now the vast majority of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, including many who would ask for asylum or other forms of protection, are being swiftly expelled under a Trump-era pandemic measure known as Title 42. The Biden administration has been taking steps, though, to increase capacity to process apprehended migrants who seek protection.
“Processing” means background checks, health screenings, and filing of asylum request paperwork. When Title 42 isn’t expelling them, most single adult asylum seekers get placed in ICE detention to await hearings in the immigration court system. Families with children, though, are usually enrolled in “alternatives to detention” programs and released into the U.S. interior to await hearing dates. This process should take less than 72 hours, especially when children are involved, but Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s capacity is often limited by the space and personnel available at ports of entry and Border Patrol stations.
The Department of Homeland Security is boosting asylum seekers’ processing by:
- Building temporary facilities—called “soft-sided” because much of the infrastructure is tents—at Donna, in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley (where a large processing facility, built in 2014 and famed for its chain-link fencing “cages,” is undergoing renovation); and soon at Eagle Pass, on the border in south-central Texas; and then at four or more additional sites across the border.
- Repurposing two controversial ICE family detention facilities that opened during the Obama administration in Dilley and Karnes, Texas, which migrant rights advocates have long derided as “baby jails.” Instead of holding them until they can see an available asylum officer for a credible fear interview (or even longer), asylum-seeking families will be taken to Dilley (2,400 beds) and Karnes (839 beds) for rapid processing, then released to await screening and/or hearings. “The goal is to process and release 100 families per day,” according to plans seen by the Washington Post. If those centers fill up, an ICE contractor will transport families to hotels.
- Hiring 300 Border Patrol processing coordinators, with a three-year goal of hiring 1,200, who will carry out most duties at these processing centers, freeing up “regular” agents whose training is in law enforcement, not asylum processing.
(These processing improvements are distinct from the opening of temporary shelters for unaccompanied children, discussed below. By the time they reach the shelters, unaccompanied kids have already been processed.)
“A detention center is not where a family belongs,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NBC News on Thursday, adding, “I believe asylum seekers, individuals who claim credible fear by reason of their membership in a particular social group, should have the opportunity to present those claims to U.S. authorities. And they should be able to present those claims in an orderly, efficient, and safe way.”
We may be seeing the outlines of a different vision for handling the border’s changed reality of asylum-seeking, mostly child-and-family, migration—which in many years since 2014 has accounted for over a third, or even a majority, of all apprehended migrants. With sufficient capacity, migrants who fear for their lives could present at a border port of entry rather than cross the Rio Grande or climb a fence. They could then be taken to processing centers, screened for credible fear, placed into alternatives to detention, and have their cases adjudicated as quickly as due process allows.
That vision is far off right now, as most migrants continue to be expelled under the Title 42 pandemic order. For the moment, only three categories of asylum-seeking migrants stand a reasonable chance of being released into the United States to await their hearings:
- Unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries. (The Trump administration sought to expel unaccompanied children, but a court order had prohibited that during Trump’s last two months in office.)
- Family units (parents with children) who ask for protection, from countries to where Title 42 expulsions are difficult, like Cuba and Venezuela. (The Trump administration had been applying the now-suspended “Remain in Mexico” policy to these families, sending them to Mexican border towns.)
- A small number of Central American families with young children, whom authorities in Tamaulipas, Mexico, have not permitted to be expelled back across the border.
A fourth category is the tightly controlled flow of asylum seekers subject to the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) program, who since February 19 have begun entering the United States. Technically, these individuals were “processed” the moment they enrolled in the program, which in some cases was nearly two years ago. As of March 2, 862 people subject to MPP had been allowed to cross into the United States to await their asylum hearings.
Everyone else is subject to Title 42 expulsion. “They need to wait. It takes time to rebuild the system from scratch,” Mayorkas said on March 1. “We are not saying, ‘Don’t come.’ We are saying, ‘Don’t come now because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible.’”
Adjustments underway to handle increased arrivals of unaccompanied minors
Those getting a lot of media attention are migrants in category (1) above: children arriving without parents. A 2008 law requires that unaccompanied children not from Mexico or Canada be delivered quickly to custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which runs a network of shelters. Children in these shelters are then placed with relatives or other sponsors in the United States. Pandemic measures, though, have reduced this network’s 13,200-bed capacity to 8,000, and even with the late-February opening of a 700-bed “influx facility” in Carrizo Springs, Texas, ORR is now at 94 percent of its reduced limit.
The administration projects that 117,000 unaccompanied migrant children could cross the border in fiscal 2021, which would shatter the record of 76,020 set in 2019. It expects their numbers to peak at 13,000 in May, up from 5,707 in January. We are still awaiting CBP’s February border migration data, but briefing slides seen by Axios point to “some 6,000 migrants aged 16 and 17” apprehended last month. Over the 21 days ending March 3, CNN reported, Border Patrol apprehended a daily average of 340 unaccompanied children.
When ORR shelters fill up and the agency can’t accommodate new intakes, apprehended minors end up spending more than the legally mandated maximum of 72 hours in Border Patrol’s austere holding facilities, which were designed for single adults’ short stays. The average time spent in these facilities, according to CNN, is now 77 hours. Border Patrol had 1,300 children in custody on March 2 waiting for HHS placement. In Yuma, Arizona, as of March 3 more than 600 people were crowded into a Border Patrol space designed for 104. In the Rio Grande Valley, more than 2,000 were in a space meant for 715.
In order to deal with the backup of unaccompanied children:
- ORR is adjusting its existing shelters’ COVID-19 protocols to make room for an additional 2,000 children.
- ORR is reopening another temporary influx facility south of Miami in Homestead, Florida, which migrant advocates revilebecause of past allegations of sexual abuse while it was under a for-profit corporation’s management, and because of its proximity to a Superfund toxic waste site.
- ORR is implementing measures to free up shelter space by speeding children’s placement with relatives or sponsors. These include database improvements for relatives’ background checks, payment of some minors’ transportation costs, and no longer asking sponsors to provide their Social Security numbers.
- President Biden is dispatching “senior members of his team” to the border, Reuters reports, so that upon return they may brief him on options for responding to the increase in unaccompanied minors.
Administration rejects opponents’ narrative of a “crisis”
March, April, and May are often the busiest months of the year for migrant apprehensions, and factors ranging from a regional pandemic economic depression to a new U.S. administration may make the spring of 2021 especially heavy.
Though the vast majority are being quickly expelled, Reuters reported that Border Patrol encountered 4,500 migrants on March 3 alone. If sustained over 31 days, that pace would mean 139,500 migrant encounters, the largest monthly total since 2006. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat who represents a border district including Laredo, Texas, put out a March 4 release reporting that in one of CBP’s nine border sectors—the Rio Grande Valley of Texas—Border Patrol had encountered 10,000 migrants over the previous week. (In January, the Rio Grande Valley accounted for 23 percent of all border migrant encounters.) Rep. Cuellar said Border Patrol was temporarily transferring “hundreds” of agents to the sector.
Further west in El Paso, Texas, the situation appears quieter: “The only migrants coming through El Paso are those in the Migrant Protection Protocols [‘Remain in Mexico’],” Mayor Oscar Leeser told the Dallas Morning News.
Asked at a White House press briefing, “How is this not a crisis?” DHS Secretary Mayorkas rejected the term. “I have explained that quite clearly. We are challenged at the border.” The administration’s political opponents, though, have accelerated messaging to portray the border situation as a crisis.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, facing criticism of his decision to lift all COVID-19 public health measures, repeatedly alleged that the Biden administration is “importing COVID” by allowing some asylum-seeking migrants to enter the country. In Brownsville, 108 migrants released by Border Patrol have tested positive for the virus—6.3 percent of those tested. This does not include those admitted from the “Remain in Mexico” program, who must test negative before crossing the border. Nor is it clear how this positivity rate might compare to that of the untested tens of thousands of people who cross the border into Texas legally every day. Most released migrants in the Rio Grande Valley end up at the local Catholic Charities respite center, which refers those who test positive to area hotels to quarantine.
Meanwhile, CNN reports that Abbott has yet to approve a DHS offer of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to help test released migrants for the virus. “Based on the numbers I’ve seen, the percentages of migrants who have COVID are very low,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, told the Dallas Morning News. “The governor of Texas knows that this kind of xenophobia, racism, and hate fuel hate crime.”
Still, ex-president Donald Trump used his February 28 speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to allege that Biden is seeking “to cancel border security.” And a visit to the foxnews.com “Immigration” page shows the network flooding the zone with an average of two stories per hour promoting the “border crisis” narrative.
We’re still awaiting CBP’s release of February numbers to see to what extent migration increased over the last few months of the Trump administration, when Border Patrol’s migrant encounters were already exceeding a very high 70,000 per month. Again, the vast majority continue to be expelled within hours under pandemic measures while the Biden administration slowly builds capacity to process them.
- President Biden met virtually with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on March 1. The presidents committed—with no public discussion of specifics—“to immigration policies that recognize the dignity of migrants and the imperative of orderly, safe, and regular migration,” and “to collaborate on a joint effort to address the root causes of regional migration, to improve migration management, and to develop legal pathways for migration.” President López Obrador reportedly proposed the reinstatement of a guest-worker arrangement like the old Bracero program that ran until the 1960s. That, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, would require Congress to pass legislation.
- Migrant smugglers crammed 44 people into two SUVs on March 2 and drove them through a gap where an entire panel of late 2000s-era border fence had been removed, probably with a high-powered saw. One of the vehicles burst into flames shortly afterward, and all 19 aboard survived. Another SUV, carrying 25 passengers, collided with a semi truck on a southeast California highway. Thirteen of those aboard died.
- A coalition of nearly 70 organizations, including WOLA, sent a report (not yet public) to Biden administration officials specifying priority sections of the Trump administration’s border wall that need to be removed, chiefly for environmental reasons.
- Democratic leadership says that the House of Representatives will take up two immigration bills next week: the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and the American Dream and Promise Act.
- “CBP has deployed about 28 percent of the surveillance and subterranean technology solutions planned, even after receiving more than $700 million in funding since fiscal year 2017,” according to a report from the DHS Inspector General.
- Children and parents brought back together by the Biden administration’s new family reunification task force might have the option to remain in the United States, said Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas, who said he’d “explore legal pathways” to making that happen.
- Former Trump attorney general Jeff Sessions, the architect of the “zero tolerance” policy that led to thousands of family separations in 2017 and 2018, voiced mild regret in an interview with Reuters, though he mainly placed the blame beyond the Justice Department: “It was unfortunate, very unfortunate, that somehow the government was not able to manage those children in a way that they could be reunited properly. It turned out to be more of a problem than I think any of us imagined it would be.”
- The Dominican Republic, whose CESFRONT border security force has received past U.S. assistance, including CBP training, has announced plans to build a fence along its entire 236-mile border with Haiti. Meanwhile, internal DHS communications revealed by BuzzFeed indicate that U.S. officials recognize that they are expelling Haitian migrants to potential danger, as ICE planes return them during a period of unusually severe political instability.