With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here. (Subsequent updates will go in-depth into Vice President Harris’s planned visit to the border this Friday, as reported by media on June 23).
Vice President Harris visits El Paso
Vice President Kamala Harris paid an approximately four-hour visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. She traveled with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), and El Paso’s House representative, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas).
She toured Border Patrol’s “central processing center” for apprehended migrants, attended an operational briefing with border agencies, and met with representatives of several El Paso non-governmental service providers and humanitarian organizations. (The list included Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Annunciation House, Border Network for Human Rights, and Hope Border Institute. WOLA published a June 24 memo laying out some key issues for the trip, along with a Twitter thread suggesting effective organizations, including all of these, with whom the vice president could meet.)
At a mid-day press conference before departing for California, the vice president said that her encounters with migrant children were a reminder “of the fact that this issue cannot be reduced to a political issue.”
President Joe Biden has given Harris a lead role in engaging with Mexico and Central America on efforts to address migration’s “root causes.” Harris has sought to deflect the perception—which shows up often in Republican statements—that her role includes border security or that she is some sort of “border czar.”
Her El Paso visit comes after weeks of calls from Republican legislators (and a few border Democrats) that she visit the border to view firsthand what they call a “crisis” caused by increased migration. The announcement of her visit, issued June 23, came a few days after ex-president Donald Trump accepted an invitation from Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) to visit the border. Trump, who will visit south Texas’s Hidalgo County on June 30, responded, “If Governor Abbott and I weren’t going there next week, she would have never gone!”
The White House denies any relation. “The reason why it’s important that she go down: She’s now set up the criteria, having spoken with the president of Mexico and Guatemala, visited the region to know what we need to do,” President Biden said on June 24. Vice-presidential spokesperson Symone Sanders said it was important for Harris first to visit Guatemala and Mexico, which she did in early June, as part of a “cause and effect” strategy.
Sanders said Harris chose to visit the border at El Paso because it was the “birthplace” of Donald Trump’s family separation policy—it was first rolled out there in late 2017. Republicans attacked the choice because El Paso, though busy right now, is seeing a less-heavy flow of migrants compared to border sectors further east in Texas and west in Arizona.
Alarming glimpses into conditions at Fort Bliss child shelter
Harris’s agenda did not include a visit to the massive emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, currently operated by the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) via a contractor at Fort Bliss, a giant army base adjacent to El Paso’s airport.
This facility, known as an Emergency Intake Site (EIS), was thrown together in March when Border Patrol processing centers were jammed with several thousand migrant children, mostly from Central America, who had arrived at the border unaccompanied. HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is meant to take custody of these children while arranging to have them stay with relatives or other sponsors in the United States while their protection needs are evaluated. ORR quickly ran out of space, however, leading to the establishment of several large, austere facilities at convention centers and similar spaces around the country.
The Fort Bliss space—a series of giant climate-controlled tents—is the largest. It can hold up to 10,000 children, and reached 5,000 in April. By mid-June, that number had dropped to 2,300. About 14,500 children remain in ORR’s shelters nationwide.
Emergency facilities like Fort Bliss continue to lack enough caseworkers to locate children’s families and sponsors. This has forced some children to stay at the facilities, essentially warehoused with little to do, for long periods. The average nationwide stay is 37 days. At Fort Bliss, government data shared with CBS News indicate that more than 100 children have been on base for more than 60 days, 16 of them since the site opened on March 30.
Though access to Fort Bliss is restricted, very troubling accounts have emerged about conditions. Information comes from Rep. Escobar, shelter workers who have spoken to press, and from a federal filing from lawyers who visited to monitor compliance with the 1997 Flores judicial agreement setting standards for migrant childcare.
“Children at the Fort Bliss EIS sleep in rows of bunk cots in giant tents with hundreds of other children, enjoy no privacy, receive almost no structured education, have little to do during the day, and lack adequate mental health care to address children’s severe anxiety and distress surrounding their prolonged detention,” reads a filing from the attorneys.
CBS News had further alarming revelations:
- Some children have required one-on-one, 24-hour supervision “to ensure they don’t hurt themselves.”
- Some children are refusing food or spending most of their days sleeping in their bunk-bed cots.
- Self-cutting appears common. The shelter has “banned pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers and regular toothbrushes inside tents,” and is even removing metal nose clips from N95 face masks. A 13-year-old Honduran girl told the attorneys “some teens used their identification cards to cut themselves.”
BBC reported accounts of substandard food, including uncooked meat, and children unwilling to shower for many days at a time for lack of clean clothes to change into. Far more seriously, shelter employees shared sexual abuse allegations with BBC, including a possible rape and a contractor “caught in a boy’s tent, you know, doing things with him.”
On June 25 HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra promised a “thorough investigation” of allegations at Fort Bliss. Tyler Moran, who covers immigration at the White House Domestic Policy council, told reporters on June 22 that efforts are underway to add 50 mental health professionals and more caseworkers, as recommended in a June 24 memo from the ACLU of Texas.
“Remain in Mexico” dismantlement expands, Title 42 phaseout may accelerate
One of the Biden administration’s first actions at the border was to end the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico.” This was a Trump-era program that forced 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearing dates on the other side of the border, in Mexico. While waiting in dangerous border towns for months or years, at least 1,544 migrants subjected to MPP suffered rape, murder, kidnapping, assault, or other serious attacks, according to a count kept by Human Rights First.
In February, the Biden administration began admitting into the United States those “remaining” in Mexico who still had pending court dates. By the end of May, 10,375 people with active asylum cases had re-entered the United States, according to TRAC Immigration, to await their hearings north of the border, usually with U.S. resident relatives.
It was unclear, though, whether there would be any redress for people in MPP who had their cases terminated while they were subjected to the program. According to TRAC’s data, 30,705 people had their asylum applications denied “in absentia,” meaning they failed to show up for their scheduled hearings.
This week, DHS announced that this asylum-seeking population will get another chance. “Beginning June 23, 2021, DHS will include MPP enrollees who had their cases terminated or were ordered removed in absentia (i.e., individuals ordered removed while not present at their hearings),” reads a memo to Congress obtained by BuzzFeed.
DHS Secretary Mayorkas had expressed doubt about whether the Remain in Mexico program was giving asylum seekers “adequate opportunity” to appear in court, the Los Angeles Times reports, “and whether conditions faced by some MPP enrollees in Mexico, including the lack of stable access to housing, income, and safety, resulted in the abandonment of potentially meritorious protection claims.” In some cases, migrants missed their MPP hearings because they had been kidnapped in Mexico and were in the custody of criminal groups.
It’s not clear how many of these 30,705 people would actually show up and avail themselves of the opportunity to seek asylum in the United States. Michele Klein Solomon, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) director for North America, Central America and the Caribbean, told the Associated Press that she expected at least 10,000 people—one-third of the “denied in absentia” population—to appear.
While dismantling MPP, the Biden administration has mostly kept in place another Trump blockage of the right to seek asylum: the “Title 42” pandemic policy mandating that undocumented migrants be rapidly expelled—and that migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle be expelled into Mexico.
Between February and May, the Biden administration used Title 42 to expel migrants 408,000 times, including more than 58,000 members of families—with little or no opportunity to ask for asylum or protection. A June 22 report from Human Rights First counted “3,250 kidnappings and other attacks, including rape, human trafficking, and violent armed assaults, against asylum seekers and migrants expelled to or blocked at the U.S.-Mexico border since President Biden took office in January 2021.” HRF found that DHS aggravates the situation by expelling many migrants late at night, “placing expelled people at increased risk of kidnapping and other harm.”
For families at least, that may end soon. Axios reported on June 20 that “The White House is considering ending—as early as July 31—the use of” Title 42 expulsions of family unit members. “President Biden has been briefed on a plan for stopping family expulsions by the end of July, as well as the option of letting a court end it.” The White House seems to be favoring calling an end to the policy rather than keep defending it in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU.
On June 24 the New York Times confirmed the Axios reporting: “It is possible that in the coming weeks, border officials could start allowing migrant families back into the country, with an eye toward lifting the rule for single adults this summer.” The most likely plan would be to place families asking for asylum into alternatives-to-detention programs in the United States—probably involving GPS ankle monitors—until their court dates in a badly backlogged immigration court system.
Under this plan, single adults would still be expelled for a while. “Lifting the public health rule for single adults is likely to come later, according to the most recent discussions, possibly by the end of the summer,” the Times reports. Single adults are the vast majority of those who are expelled, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been expelling 86 percent of those whom it encounters at the border. NBC News reported that the agency is even resuming “lateral expulsion” flights for single adults, taking some from the busy border sectors where they are apprehended, then expelling them back into Mexico in sectors that are seeing a less heavy flow of migrants, like El Paso and San Diego.
The Times expects that lifting Title 42 for asylum-seeking families by the end of July “is likely to sharply increase the flow of migrants, at least in the short term.” That may be, for families. For migrants who wish to avoid being apprehended, though—like single adults who don’t seek asylum—it’s possible that lifting Title 42 could lead to fewer encounters at the border. The pandemic period, since mid-2020, saw a very sharp increase in Border Patrol encounters with single adults seeking to avoid apprehension. This was in large part because being rapidly expelled, and not detained or charged, made it easier to cross back into the United States and try again. Without Title 42 easing repeat attempts, that sharp increase in single adult migration could fade.
Border Patrol Chief exits
In a message to his personal Facebook account, Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott made known that the Biden administration had given him a “three R letter,” meaning “resign, retire, or relocate.” Chief Scott, who had been on the job for 17 months, will stay on for up to 60 days before leaving the force.
Scott, who served most of his tenure as chief during Donald Trump’s final year in office, appeared to be supportive of the former president. “Scott appeared several times alongside Trump, eagerly defending his hard-line policies, leading some colleagues to privately express concern that Scott’s enthusiasm occasionally veered into partisanship,” the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff noted this week. As a result, “several of his current and former colleagues [were] surprised he remained in the post” as long as he did, even as he and other senior officials “chafed at Biden’s reversal of Trump policies they viewed as effective,” like Remain in Mexico. His exit was “completely driven by politics,” an unnamed source told the Washington Examiner’s Anna Giaritelli.
Scott’s successor will be his deputy, Raúl Ortiz, according to a statement from acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller. (The Post had earlier reported that Ortiz would serve “on an interim basis,” but that is not clear.) Like Scott, Ortiz has been on the force for 29 years. He was a featured guest during Donald Trump’s February 2020 State of the Union speech. The Examiner reports that his most likely successor as deputy chief will be either San Diego Sector Chief Aaron Heitke, Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Brian Hastings, or El Paso Sector Chief Gloria Chavez.
CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency, continues without a confirmed commissioner to fill the role Miller is playing on an acting basis. The Biden administration named Tucson, Arizona Police Chief Chris Magnus in April, but like many Senate nominations, it is moving very slowly through the chamber.
- The Republican governors of Florida, Idaho, Iowa, and Nebraska have responded to a call from the Republican governors of Arizona and Texas, Doug Ducey and Greg Abbott, to send law-enforcement personnel to the border. Iowa and Nebraska will each send about two dozen uniformed officers to Texas and/or Arizona for a couple of weeks. Gov. Abbott set up a website for private donations for the state government to build its own border wall; it received $459,000 in about a week. While that sounds like a lot, at the going rate of about $26 million per mile in Texas, it would only build 0.02 miles of wall. The Texas governor’s portrayal of the area as a danger zone is hurting tourism and other business in the border region, local leaders say.
- In the dangerous Mexican border city of Reynosa, where U.S. agencies have expelled thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers and families under Title 42, June 19 was a day of citywide attacks and firefights between three factions of the Gulf drug cartel and law enforcement, killing 19 people. Of the dead, 15 appeared to be innocent bystanders, the Associated Press reports. The surrounding Mexican state of Tamaulipas has long been under the influence of the Gulf and Zetas cartels, but those groups have fragmented. Now, the Mexican daily Milenio cites government intelligence reports mapping territorial disputes between six groups. The United States’ Title 42 expulsions into Tamaulipas “continue to endanger the migrant population” while “organized crime groups are taking advantage of the situation,” according to a new report by Global Response Management, a humanitarian organization that has assisted asylum seekers stranded in Tamaulipas by “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 expulsions.
- Touring the border in the Rio Grande Valley, Border Report finds a profusion of makeshift wooden and rope ladders being used to scale the border wall. “When agents find the ladders, they pile them up just north of the wall. Once a week, a truck is sent down the dirt trail road that lines the border wall to gather and haul them all away.” The climbs are dangerous: “Almost daily, we receive two to three calls of individuals getting hurt,” a Border Patrol agent says. “Some more serious than others — fractured bones protruding from skin that will need medical attention. Other times, it’s just a sprain.”
- Just over the state line from El Paso, in New Mexico, “Five times in the past four weeks, Sunland Park police or firefighters have assisted U.S. Border Patrol agents at places where migrants died of heat exhaustion or from falls” from the wall, Border Report notes.
- A 51-year-old Bahamian man died of a heart attack last December when staff at a Natchez, Mississippi ICE detention center failed to provide an adequate medical response, according to a draft DHS Inspector-General report obtained by BuzzFeed. The detention center is run by CoreCivic, a Tennessee-based for-profit contractor.
- Reps. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represent border districts, and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) voiced support for vaccinating migrants, like asylum seekers, who are allowed to cross into the United States.
- Together with the country’s National Guard, Mexico’s migration authority, the National Migration Institute (INM), ran two deportation flights to Caribbean nations this week. It sent 89 Cuban migrants to Havana and 97 Haitian migrants to Port-au-Prince. INM also detained 241 Central American migrants at a warehouse in Puebla and 116 at a residence in Tamaulipas.