Nick Miroff and Kevin Sieff, Washington Post, February 3, 2021
The Mexican government has stopped taking back Central American families “expelled” at the U.S. border under a Trump-era emergency health order related to the coronavirus, a shift that has prompted U.S. Customs and Border Protection to release more parents and children into the U.S. interior, according to five U.S. officials.
The change, which has not been publicly disclosed, raises concerns in U.S. border communities and at the Department of Homeland Security because the large-scale release of parents and children into the United States has triggered previous waves of unauthorized migration.
U.S. officials say the releases have occurred mostly in south Texas, including CBP’s Del Rio sector and the Rio Grande Sector that is the border’s busiest place for illegal crossings. In a statement, CBP spokesperson Stephanie Malin acknowledged an increase in the number of families released after being taken into CBP custody.
“CBP has seen a steady increase in border encounters since April 2020, which, aggravated by COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines, has caused some facilities to reach maximum, safe holding capacity,” Malin said in a statement.“Whenever feasible we are seeking alternatives to detention in cases where the law allows.”
Under an emergency order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last March, U.S. authorities have carried out more than 390,000 “expulsions” along the Mexico border, allowing agents to bypass normal immigration proceedings and rapidly turn back roughly 90 percent of unlawful crossers. The measures are necessary to avoid transmission of the virus inside Border Patrol stations and immigration jails, CBP officials say.
U.S. authorities have made more than 70,000 detentions and arrests along the Mexico border for each of the past four months, one of the busiest periods of the past decade, according to the most recent CBP figures and projections. The daily arrest totals have increased over the past week, according to three U.S. officials, a trend driven by family groups and children.
“Mexico is only accepting single adults now, not families or children,” said one U.S. official who, like others, was not authorized to speak publicly about the change.
On the border, the policy meant families and children were sent to specific government family shelters instead. In some border cities, the shelters quickly filled up. Mexican immigration officials informed their U.S counterparts that, in those cities, families could not be returned to Mexico.
The number of migrants arriving as part of family groups per month peaked at more than 88,000 in May 2019, and then fell quickly after the Trump administration pressured Mexico to crack down and take back Central Americans ordered to wait outside U.S. territory. Between 4,000 and 5,000 migrants traveling in family groups have been taken into custody in recent months while CBP relied on the expulsion measures as its main enforcement tool.
The Biden administration directed CBP to stop expelling minors who arrive without a parent, allowing them to go to U.S. shelters instead, while launching a broader review of Trump’s deterrent policies and border controls, including the CDC order.
A Central American official who closely monitors migration dynamics said smuggling guides have intensified their marketing efforts in Guatemala’s destitute rural highlands in recent weeks, recruiting customers by telling them the Biden administration is taking a softer enforcement approach.
“They’re saying Biden has given the green light,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The Biden administration said it is working as quickly as possible to undo Trump policies it considers harmful and inhumane, replacing them with an approach that is more welcoming to immigrants and offers protections to vulnerable groups seeking safe refuge.