With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. 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.
We’ve known the name and general outlines of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 since the Biden administration’s first moments. On February 18, the actual 353-page text of the Democrats’ flagship immigration reform bill went public in the House and Senate. The bill’s principal sponsors, who coordinated closely with the administration, are Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-California), who introduced it with a press conference.
This is the most comprehensive legislative attempt at immigration reform since a 2013 bill that passed the Democratic-majority Senate, with many concessions to Republicans, only to fail in a Republican-majority House. It would provide a path to citizenship for most currently undocumented people in the United States, resolve the situation of “Dreamers” and TPS holders, overhaul asylum and refugee law, and much else.
The bill’s passage is far from assured. It would need unanimous Democratic support in the Senate, and while the filibuster remains in place, at least 10 Republican votes. The administration has indicated it is open to the idea of breaking the bill up into pieces.
The U.S. Citizenship Act’s U.S.-Mexico border-related provisions include:
- Providing Central America with $1 billion per year in assistance each year from 2022 through 2025 to address the “root causes” of migration. The “Strategy for Engagement with Central America” focuses on reforms and improvements, placing anti-corruption and rule of law first, followed by anti-violence and anti-poverty efforts. Security aid appears to be mostly non-lethal, with an emphasis on investigative techniques. Aid is conditioned on progress along 11 measures.
- Helping other countries in the region expand their own refugee and asylum systems, while creating U.S. refugee processing centers in Central America and reviving the Central America Minors Program that Donald Trump terminated in 2017.
- Establishing a Central American Family Reunification Parole Program for victims of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
- Building up technology on the border. This includes scanners and infrastructure at aging ports of entry, and “smart technology” elsewhere at the border with “independent oversight on privacy rights,” a significant concern of border communities. The bill seeks to reduce migrant deaths in the desert by deploying rescue beacons.
- Expanding “officer safety and professionalism”—not quite a cultural overhaul—at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel. This means training and continuing education covering community policing, cultural awareness, interaction with vulnerable populations, and similar needs. It also means setting up a “Border Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee,” new use of force policies, and a ratio of one internal affairs employee for every 30 CBP officers.
- Improving humanitarian and medical standards for migrants during time spent in CBP custody, including adopting child welfare standards and hiring trained personnel.
- Expanding the Justice Department’s investigations of migrant smugglers, and expanding FBI-DEA Transnational Anti-Gang Task Forces in Central America.
- After asylum seekers are paroled at the border, keeping them “in the system” by expanding alternatives to detention programs, reducing immigration courts’ backlogs by building up adjudication capacity, and allowing court-appointed counsel for unaccompanied children and especially vulnerable migrants. The bill makes numerous other adjustments to the asylum process.
Rep. Sanchez has filed the bill in the House, and Sen. Menendez will do so next week, when the Senate comes back in session.
Remain in Mexico admissions to start February 19
The new administration’s most visible change to the immigration system gets underway at the border on February 19. The process of winding down the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, known formally as Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), is to begin at the San Ysidro port of entry south of San Diego.
With the Mexican government’s acquiescence, since January 2019 MPP forced over 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearing dates on Mexican soil. This often meant waiting in border towns, under impoverished and unsafe conditions. About 25,000 people still have open cases; many have been waiting since 2019. In January the Biden administration halted new admissions into MPP (though ports of entry remain closed to asylum seekers and most apprehended migrants are still expelled under pandemic measures), and began setting up a procedure for MPP subjects to finish the asylum process while living in the United States with relatives or sponsors.
That process will involve online registration at a site (not active yet) run by the UN Refugee Agency and other international organizations. Asylum seekers will be prioritized according to how long they’ve been waiting or other “acute vulnerabilities.” When CBP is able to process them, they will be called to a staging area near one of three ports of entry (San Ysidro/San Diego, California; El Paso, Texas; or Brownsville, Texas) where the International Organization for Migration will test them for COVID-19 while still in Mexico. Processing will involve transferring asylum seekers’ cases to courts in interior U.S. cities where they plan to stay. Homeland Security Secretary Ali Mayorkas says that the plan is to scale up to processing about 300 people per day at each port. (WOLA this week offered a list of recommendations for the U.S. and Mexican governments to guarantee a fair and safe process.)
The record cold that blacked out most of Texas took a toll on those “remaining in Mexico.” At a makeshift camp across from Brownsville in Matamoros, “tents made out of blue tarp have iced over” and “water used for cooking and bathing has also frozen,” ABC News reported. “There is a real concern for frostbite, hypothermia,” nurse practitioner Andrea Leiner of Global Response, which has been attending to people at the camp, told the Dallas Morning News. “People don’t want to move to a shelter with a roof. They are afraid they will lose their spot in the MPP line.”
The “Remain in Mexico” wind-down has its critics. Though Arizona’s ports of entry are not involved, Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, wrote to Mayorkas complaining of “the hasty announcement” and “the lack of details provided to stakeholders in a border state.” Alan Bersin, a top Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official during the Clinton and Obama administrations, told the Associated Press that the move—which he said owes to “such a pressing sense in the advocate community that is controlling the Biden immigration agenda”—will draw more migrants to the border.
Some Democratic members of Congress, Politico reported, also worry about triggering a spike in migration by going too fast on immigration reform and dismantling Trump’s measures. Though he says he backs reforms, Rep. Vicente González (D-Texas), whose district borders Mexico, told the publication, “The way we’re doing it right now is catastrophic and is a recipe for disaster in the middle of a pandemic… Biden is going to be dealing with a minority in Congress if he continues down some of these paths.”
Migration through Mexico is increasing
Most Trump-era restrictions on new asylum seekers, including pandemic “expulsions,” remain in place. Nonetheless, reports point to a recent jump in northbound migration through Mexico. This owes to perceptions, fed by smugglers, that the Biden administration will go easier on migrants. It also owes to a loosening of countries’ pandemic travel restrictions, and grave security and economic conditions worsened by COVID-19 and two severe November hurricanes in Central America.
The Mexican government’s National Migration Institute (INM) reported collaborating with military, police, and National Guard agents, on more than 50 raids since January 25 on the “La Bestia” cargo trains that often carry migrants, apprehending 1,189 people, 30 percent of them minors. Authorities apprehended hundreds of migrants at a time in the cargo containers of tractor-trailers on highways in Chiapas, Veracruz and Nuevo León. Associated Press interviews with migrant shelter and legal aid personnel in the southern Mexican cities of Tenosique, Palenque, and Tapachula found all experiencing a sharp increase in demand over 2020; the “La 72” shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, “has hosted nearly 1,500 migrants” so far in 2021, “compared to 3,000 all of last year.” Further south, AP notes, Panama’s January reopening of its border with South America has led to “some 1,500 migrants spread across various camps.”
At the U.S. border, Border Patrol agents in the Yuma sector of Arizona and California have apprehended 28 migrant children under 13 years of age since January 1, more than twice the number for the same period in the record-breaking year of 2019. The Wall Street Journal reported that DHS dropped off 341 migrant family members—many of them Cuban, Haitian, or Venezuelan—during the last week of January at a migrant shelter in remote Del Rio, Texas, and that in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, “an IOM-sponsored hotel housing migrants during the pandemic has been at capacity for the past few weeks.”
The statement from Mexico’s INM sees the change in U.S. administration as a key factor behind the increase: “In interviews with the Institute, the people who travel on these trains have stated that, given the change in immigration policy by the new U.S. government, they feel encouraged to reach northern Mexico by various routes.”
- The Dallas Morning News and El Paso Matters report on an Ecuadorian man and a Guatemalan man who recently fell from a new 30-foot section of border wall near El Paso: one broke both ankles and the other broke his back and pelvis. Border Patrol agents drove them 90 miles to a remote border crossing and expelled them, under Title 42, without medical attention, forcing them to walk across into Mexico.
- The San Diego Union-Tribune profiles Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent who underwent abuse and trauma during her time in the force, and who now, accompanied by the Southern Border Communities Coalition, is one of its most outspoken critics. In late January, Border Patrol launched what it calls the “Fearless Five” campaign to commemorate the 5 percent of agents who are women, with a video comparing female agents to diamonds forged by extreme pressure.
- The latest in a nearly two-and-a-half-year series of updates from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center finds 16,250 asylum seekers on “metering” waitlists in nine Mexican border cities, up from 15,690 in November.
- A DHS memo obtained by BuzzFeed plans to direct officials to refrain from using words like “alien” and “illegal alien.”
- A report from the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute finds that “Thirteen border security companies’ executives and top employees contributed three times more to Joe Biden ($5,364,994) than to Donald Trump ($1,730,435)” during the 2020 campaign.
- Mexico’s government had promised to help “Remain in Mexico” subjects find employment while they awaited their hearing dates on Mexican soil, citing at least 3,700 jobs in border towns. In the end, Animal Político’s Alberto Pradilla revealed, only 64 people found work through the Mexican Labor Department’s efforts. Meanwhile, the same journalist reported, Mexican government programs to assist Central American communities, in order to address migration’s causes, only reached 6 percent of their originally planned population.