DALLAS — A controversial immigration policy left over from the Trump presidency has resulted in immigrants being quickly removed from the U.S. more than 450,000 times since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, and the White House is warning migrants that they should not travel to the U.S.
And the number of migrant families caught at the southern border rose to 7,260 in January from an average of about 4,500 in the first three months of this fiscal year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported on Wednesday night.
Both figures highlight the policy dilemma now before the Biden administration as it tries to reverse some of the measures made by the Trump administration. If the Biden team changes policies too quickly, it could result in a fresh spike of desperate immigrants and asylum-seekers like that seen in 2019.
“Now is not the time to come,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Wednesday news conference. “The vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately.”
For now, migrants seeking asylum will still face the same hurdles put in place by the Trump administration. About 28,000 were waiting in Mexico for their day in immigration court under former President Donald Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as Remain in Mexico. In Matamoros, across from Brownsville, about 1,000 asylum seekers have lived there for months, some for more than a year in a squalid tent camp.
Under Title 42, the removals are known as expulsions and aren’t considered deportations, which would allow an immigrant to make a case to stay in the U.S. before an immigration judge. The Trump administration said the emergency measures were needed to protect the health of U.S. citizens and of the migrants who couldn’t be socially distanced in the tight confines of Border Patrol holding areas.
At the ACLU, which sued the Trump administration numerous times over its policies, attorney Lee Gelernt urged the Biden administration to make a strong pivot against rapid returns.
“While we recognize that the Biden administration has been saddled with a lot of bad policy and structural problems, it cannot continue the Trump administration practice of turning away people in danger based on illegal policies, such as the notorious and pretextual Title 42 policy.”
Critics of Title 42 have noted that while unauthorized immigrants and asylum seekers are being routinely rounded up and expelled at the border under Title 42, an emergency pandemic order named for its place in the federal code, routine trade and medical traffic has continued at U.S,-Mexico checkpoints.
Medical and human rights groups have pushed back hard on the targeted use of the measures and say people can be screened for COVID-19 like others who move across the border.
They also say Title 42′s use end-runs the due process of the U.S. immigration court system. And many people expelled by Title 42 are also believed to be immediately attempting new crossings into the U.S.
“It really shows the urgency of doing away with the policies Trump left behind and the difficulty of setting up the infrastructure for the migrants,” said Adam Isacson, a security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Infrastructure would include creating adequate processing facilities for CBP, staffing up to do the processing, and expanding COVID testing, he said.
Although Title 42 has led to the rapid expulsion of most immigrants and asylum seekers, a small increase has been reported in the number of migrant families that are being allowed into the U.S.
Isacson has kept a steady watch on migrant families arriving along the border, traveling through Mexico toward the U.S. The number of individuals in migrant families — 7,260 in January 2021 — is far lower than in 2019 when 10,000 were coming in a week. “If they say they have gotten hundreds in the last week, that’s not that much,” Isacson said.
Overall, January showed an increase of 6 percent over the previous month when Title 42 expulsions and regular apprehensions were combined.
Advocates and authorities are concerned about the rising numbers.
This week in Donna, near McAllen, a climate-controlled tent camp was reopened by CBP for immigrant families. The temporary tent camp expands processing capacity in the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest region for the U.S. Border Patrol.
Shelters and nonprofits in the Rio Grande Valley have seen a small increase in the number of migrant families released into the area. In Brownsville, for example, two nonprofits greet about 50 persons daily, bringing them hygiene kits and meals after they are dropped off at a bus station there.
Nonprofits along migrant trails from Honduras to U.S. say shelters are filling up again as asylum seekers and immigrants head north because economies are suffering due to the pandemic, people are still feeling the effects of two recent hurricanes, and the new Biden administration has given them new hope that they would be welcomed in the U.S.
At the Good Neighbor Settlement House in Brownsville, staff is bracing to help more desperate families — a task complicated because of the pandemic. In the past, immigrant families were allowed to bathe and eat at their nonprofit. No longer.
“When we started noticing that McAllen got the first 150 persons [in families] we knew we had to be prepared,” said Belinda Bradford, the assistant director at the Good Neighbor Settlement House. Sighing, Bradford said migration is “unhealthy. It is causing a lot of trauma to children.”
The election of a new president friendlier to immigrants sparked a journey north for Gustavo Sanchez, the father of five young children. He left his central Mexican state of Guanajuato late last year for a job making bleachers in North Texas. He never made it. He was deported through Laredo last week and expelled into a cartel-controlled area of northern Mexico.
He told his wife not to wire him money to get home because of cartel lookouts. Instead, he hitchhiked some 500 miles south.
Now, Sanchez would just like to get back his Mexican identification card and $200 in pesos he had with him when he was caught, he said by phone Wednesday.
“When I left (Texas immigration officials) said they didn’t have them, and said they sent them to Mexico,” Sanchez said.
Story by Dianne Solis.