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 weekly updates here.
Administration scrambles to accommodate children while expelling most others
Border Patrol apprehended 561 unaccompanied children across the U.S.-Mexico border on March 15, up from a daily average of 332 per day in February. On a March 18 call, senior Biden administration officials told reporters that about 14,000 migrant children who had arrived without a parent or guardian were in U.S. government custody.
Of these, 9,562 were in the shelter system of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services or HHS), where COVID-19 response had lowered a 13,200-bed systemwide capacity to about 8,000. Once they are in these shelters, ORR works to place the children with a relative or other sponsor in the United States, with whom they stay while the U.S. immigration court system decides whether deportation would endanger them. In more than 80 percent of cases, a relative is located, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas notified this week. In more than 40 percent of cases, that relative is a parent or legal guardian.
(Read more about how the processing and sheltering of unaccompanied migrant children are supposed to work, and how the caseload has grown, in our updates of March 12, March 5, and February 26 and in a new explainer document that WOLA published on March 17.)
The remaining 4,500 unaccompanied children were stuck in Border Patrol stations and processing centers as of March 18, awaiting placement in ORR’s shelters. This shatters the previous high of 2,600 kids in temporary Border Patrol custody, set in June 2019.
By law, children are not supposed to be in short-term Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours. The agency’s austere holding facilities—which resemble the holding tanks in a local police station or, as some say, “cages”—are not designed for vulnerable populations. As of March 14, though, when 4,200 kids were in Border Patrol facilities, about 3,000 had been there longer than 72 hours. The average time in custody climbed to 120 hours by March 17. CNN reported on March 15 that more than 300 of the kids had been stuck for more than 10 days.
Two attorneys who visited CBP’s temporary migrant processing facility in Donna, Texas on March 11 came away horrified by what they heard from 20 interviews with kids. The Donna facility, which is mostly sturdy tents, can hold 250 people but had about 1,000 at the time, and children said they had gone days without showering. Kids are sleeping on gym mats or on benches and concrete floors, under thin mylar blankets. Many have been stuck in crowded tents for days. A “staggering” number of the 1,000 kids at Donna are under 10 years old, one of the lawyers told the New York Times.
The main bottleneck here is at ORR: the agency’s shelter system is nearly out of space, and can’t place children with sponsors as fast as new kids are arriving at Border Patrol facilities. The federal government is taking several measures to increase its capacity:
- On March 12 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allowed ORR to return its bed space back to pre-pandemic levels.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, part of DHS) converted the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas into a shelter for up to 3,000 migrant boys age 15 to 17.
- FEMA has also converted an oil workers’ camp in Midland, Texas, into temporary shelter space for another 700 children, and HHS is looking at other facilities in Texas, Arizona, California, Florida, and Virgina.
- On March 17 FEMA awarded $110 million in funds appropriated by the American Rescue Plan Act “to eligible local nonprofit and governmental organizations and state governmental facilities” working with migrants.
- Secretary Mayorkas reported that more than 560 DHS employees had volunteered “to support HHS in our collective efforts to address the needs of the unaccompanied children.”
Families and expulsions
“We will have, I believe, by next month enough of those beds to take care of these children who have no place to go,” President Joe Biden told ABC News. “Let’s get somethin’ straight though,” the president added (with the contraction in the original transcript). “The vast majority of people crossin’ the border are being sent back. Are being sent back, immediately sent back.”
This is true. As last week’s update noted, 72 percent of migrants Border Patrol encountered at the border in February were expelled, usually within hours, without seeing the inside of a CBP facility or having a chance to ask for asylum or protection. They are either flown back to their own countries or, if they are Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran, sent back across the border into Mexico, where the Mexican government has agreed to receive most of them.
This is done under a pandemic public health order, known as “Title 42,” that permits rapid expulsions, and which two presidential administrations have now interpreted to mean rapid expulsions without regard to migrants’ protection needs. The Trump administration began employing Title 42 in March 2020.
The Biden administration continues to use it, but it is not expelling unaccompanied children. It is, however, expelling nearly all single adults and a large portion of family units (parents with children).
As CBS News reported a week ago, nearly 60 percent of families Border Patrol encountered in February were not expelled. That is up from 38 percent not expelled in January. There appear to be two main reasons why a family does not get expelled. Either they are from countries to which expulsions are difficult, like Cuba or Venezuela, or they are part of a minority of families from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) whom Mexico is refusing to take back.
Though there is no public written evidence of a policy, authorities in Mexico’s border state of Tamaulipas have been refusing expulsions of families with small children, citing a lack of family-appropriate shelter space that would violate a recent child welfare law. (Ciudad Juárez faces some capacity limits too, according to the U.S. Border Patrol Chief in El Paso.)
This has led Border Patrol and ICE to release some asylum-seeking Central American families, with notices to appear in U.S. immigration court, in south Texas border cities. There, charities have been taking in the modest flow of family members: about 150 migrants per day in Brownsville, for instance, where the mayor told local news, “It’s not a threat at this point.”
DHS has found a way, though, to expel many families despite Mexico’s localized restrictions: flying them to parts of the border where they can still expel them. On March 9 authorities in El Paso were notified that two daily planeloads of migrants would begin being flown all the way across the state, from south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. Even as shelters prepared to greet the families, by March 13 it was evident that DHS was bringing most from the airport straight to the border, sending them across into Ciudad Juárez. WOLA has heard, but hasn’t yet fully confirmed, that flights are also going to San Diego to expel families into Tijuana.
As the border remains closed with no end to Title 42 in sight, national news covered populations of protection-seeking migrants crowding into Mexican border towns: in a new tent encampment outside Tijuana’s El Chaparral port of entry; among the tearful expelled population in Ciudad Juárez; and at a grim government shelter in Reynosa that is now holding 700 unaccompanied children apprehended by Mexican authorities.
The Biden administration’s message to them continues to be “don’t come now,” as repeated by the president himself in his ABC News interview:
I can say quite clearly don’t come over. And the process of getting set up, and it’s not gonna take a whole long time, is to be able to apply for asylum in place. So don’t leave your town or city or community. We’re gonna make sure we have facilities in those cities and towns run by department of—by DHS and also access with HHS, the Health and Human Services, to say you can apply for asylum from where you are right now.
David Shahoulian, the DHS assistant secretary for border security and immigration, acknowledged that “the messaging to discourage migrants from coming had not been working and that the administration would need to be clearer in the future,” according to the New York Times. With thousands of expelled families clearly acting on erroneous information, it’s not clear what the administration can do to counteract inaccurate but rapidly propagated messages from smugglers and on social media. “At some point,” longtime Ciudad Juárez migration official Enrique Valenzuela told Public Radio International, “people were tricked into thinking that the U.S. opened its doors all the way to people seeking international protection.”
Reports indicate Biden administration pressing Mexico to interdict more migrants
In a March 1 video call with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the New York Times reported, President Biden asked Mexico to do more to “help solve the problem” of increased immigration flows to the United States. In the same conversation, López Obrador asked Biden for access to stockpiled doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, which is not yet approved for use in the United States.
On March 18 the White House announced that the U.S. government would share 2.5 million vaccines with Mexico and 1.5 million with Canada. Mexico, meanwhile, has agreed to do more to contain migration through its territory and to take more families expelled under Title 42, the Times and the Washington Post reported. Both countries’ officials insist that there was no vaccines-for-border-enforcement quid pro quo; a senior Mexican diplomat told the Post that it was a “parallel negotiation.”
Whatever it was, the result could be more Title 42 expulsions of families into Mexico, which as noted above has been refusing to take back Central American families with small children in some areas. “Mexican officials have told the Biden administration they are willing to alter or delay the implementation of a law passed in November that limits their ability to detain minors,” the same article continues. DHS Secretary Mayorkas had hinted at this in a March 16 memo: “We are working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families.”
Mexican immigration and security forces have meanwhile stepped up immigration raids throughout its territory. Reuters reported that Mexican forces apprehended about 1,200 Central American migrants, including more than 300 children, along southern Mexican cargo train routes between January 25 and February 16. Another 800 were detained aboard buses and tractor trailers “in recent weeks.” Mexico has not released February migrant apprehension data yet; in January it reported apprehending 9,574 migrants—the second-highest monthly total since the pandemic began—of whom 9,145 were from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador).
“A more visible Mexican immigration enforcement effort is expected to be announced soon, according to current and former Mexican officials,” the Washington Post reported on March 18. The new effort, it added, may be targeted less at migrants along the train route—generally the poorest migrant population—and more at the larger number who travel, often in private vehicles, with paid smugglers. Such an operation may require a large anti-corruption component to succeed, since much of smugglers’ high fees are reportedly spread among officials who enable their vehicles to proceed.
Mexico has also agreed to increase its presence—mainly of members of its National Guard, a new militarized police force—near its southern border with Guatemala, according to the New York Times and Reuters. On March 18, Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat announced that it would be closing its southern border to all non-essential traffic, as the United States has done with its southern border. It’s not clear yet what criteria must be met for travel to be “essential.”
Secretary Mayorkas testifies as GOP cranks up “crisis” rhetoric
“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years. We are expelling most single adults and families. We are not expelling unaccompanied children,” reads a March 16 memo from DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas updating about the situation at the border. The secretary also gave his first major testimony since his nomination process concluded, appearing for four hours before a House Homeland Security Committee that displayed bitter divisions between its Democratic and Republican members.
“The border is secure, and the border is not open,” Mayorkas told the committee. His written testimony laid out very broad outlines for what a new approach to protection-seeking migration might look like, naming three elements: addressing root causes driving migration; helping regional governments offer more asylum or protection in their own countries; and “dramatically” improving the U.S. migrant processing and asylum adjudication systems.
That last point—asylum adjudication—is in bad shape: the testimony notes that backlogs are so bad that “[i]n some locations, there is a more than four-year waiting period for a final hearing.” Mayorkas’s March 16 memo sets a goal of “shorten[ing] from years to months the time it takes to adjudicate an asylum claim while ensuring procedural safeguards and enhancing access to counsel.”
Republican legislators at the March 17 House Homeland hearing were sharply critical. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a committee member who is also the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised “Remain in Mexico” and other Trump-era restrictions on asylum, adding, “With all due respect, this administration has created this crisis. … Cartels and traffickers see that the green light is on at our southern border, and the United States is open for business.”
Several Republicans sought to get Mayorkas to use the word “crisis” to describe the situation at the border. The secretary’s reply to Rep. McCaul was blunt: “A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration.”
“Biden border crisis” is now one of the most prominent messages coming from GOP politicians and media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart. A group of 12 House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and ranking Homeland Security Committee member John Katko (R-New York), traveled to El Paso on March 15. They delivered statements in front of a half-mile segment of border wall that was built in 2019 by a private non-profit whose leadership—including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, until Trump pardoned him—is facing fraud charges. “There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis,” Rep. McCarthy said. Rep. Katko called it “disorder at the border by executive order.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has been vocal about the border situation, made a March 17 appearance using as a backdrop the Dallas convention center where FEMA is sheltering unaccompanied children. “The Biden administration opened the floodgates to any child who wants to come across the border,” he said. Abbott asked the federal government to give Texas law enforcement officers access to the children in the convention center, in order to investigate human trafficking. The Biden administration turned him down on grounds that the children should not be forced to undergo the trauma of repeating their stories several times.
Two sets of Republicans’ claims about the border situation have been widely debunked.
First, Abbott and others had been alleging that the migrant population is spreading COVID-19. In fact, the acting head of FEMA reported that less than 6 percent of tests on migrants have come back positive, lower than Texas’s overall 7.4 percent positivity rate. Migrants in Brownsville showed a similar positivity rate: 210 of nearly 3,000 people tested since January 25, or 6 percent.
Second is terrorism. Katko, McCarthy, and others on the March 15 El Paso visit said Border Patrol agents told them they had apprehended four individuals so far in fiscal year 2021 who were on the U.S. “Known or Suspected Terrorist” list (or perhaps the Terrorist Screening Database). Three were from Yemen and one was from Serbia; McCarthy had also named Iran, Turkey, and China but later had to retract. While the U.S. government is not transparent about this data, four apprehensions of people on the watchlist appears to be normal, according to a Washington Post fact check that surmised, “the real number ranges from around three to a dozen per year.”
Former officials noted that being on this list is only an alert, and does not point to actual involvement in terrorism; it often indicates a degree of separation from a suspected terrorist. Investigative journalist Ryan Deveraux, who looked deeply into this in 2014, tweeted that the database “is a train wreck that has been shown to include huge numbers of people without facts or evidence.”
The “border crisis” narrative is likely to persist until ORR can accommodate the rising numbers of unaccompanied children, and until processing and other capacity exist to allow a long overdue wind-down of Title 42. In the meantime, as the Washington Post and Politico noted, Republicans are seizing on immigration as their banner issue as they endeavor to win back congressional majorities in the 2022 midterm elections.
“Can we just agree not to use these human beings in front of us as political pawns?” Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House migrant shelter, told Politico. “Let’s just make sure they’re taken care of.”
- Don’t miss the 3,200-word explainer that WOLA published this week, covering the current moment for U.S. border policy and migration, and recommendations for what lies ahead.
- Gen. Glen Vanherck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told reporters that 3,500 National Guardsmen from 22 states remain deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border. That deployment is “100 percent of the forces” currently at the border, he said, which implies that the regular military personnel deployed by President Trump in 2019 are no longer there. The troops are manning observation sites looking for border-crossers, using 24 UH-72 helicopters for aerial detection and monitoring, and helping to maintain CBP vehicles. DHS, Gen. Vanherck continued, has indicated it would like the military presence to continue after its next expiration date, the September 30 end of fiscal year 2021. (As noted in our February 26 update, the military deployment was the subject of a detailed report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).)
- The New York Times covers the fragments of half-built border wall scattered across wilderness areas as the Biden administration’s pause on barrier construction continues. The Palm Springs Desert Sun looks at segments of wall built at great cost in south-central California’s Jacumba wilderness.
- The “La 72” migrant shelter, near the Guatemalan border in Tenosique, Mexico, attended to 2,836 people in the pandemic year 2020, according to its annual report released this week. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that “La 72” had already attended to 6,000 migrants so far in 2021.
- The remains of 16 migrants massacred—probably by state police—on January 22 in Tamaulipas, Mexico, were returned to the migrants’ hometown of Comitancillo, San Marcos, Guatemala. That town, the Wall Street Journal reports, has sent many emigrants to Carthage, Mississippi, where a giant 2019 ICE raid of chicken processing plants caught up one of the murdered migrants, Édgar López, a longtime Carthage resident who was trying to return.
- Border Patrol agent Alejandro Flores-Bañuelos, age 35, died on March 15 after being struck by a passing vehicle while assisting a traffic collision in southeast California’s El Centro sector.
- NBC News reports that DHS is requiring that all inquiries to local Border Patrol personnel be routed through the press office in Washington, as was the policy during the Obama administration. Unnamed officials referred to it as a “gag order.”
- Former Border Patrol agent Jenn Budd, a prominent critic of her former employer and its culture, believes that the agency is manufacturing a sense of crisis at the border right now. She contends that agents likely helped concoct a strange video, which appeared on CNN, depicting smugglers taking a boatload of migrants across the Rio Grande in broad daylight.