By Mica Rosenberg, Ted Hesson and Mimi Dwyer
U.S. officials are trying to drive home an increasingly emphatic message to the growing number of mostly Central American asylum seekers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border every day: “Do not come. The border is closed.”
The reality on the ground is less clear.
While the United States is expelling migrant families and individuals to Mexico under a Trump-era public health order to limit the spread of the coronavirus, thousands of families have been released into the United States in recent weeks pending the outcome of their immigration cases.
On the same day Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas went on five U.S. Sunday television shows to issue the warnings, U.S. border agents in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley began releasing migrant families to relieve pressure on crowded border facilities without set dates to appear in immigration court.
The varied handling of families is bewildering migrants and causing frustration among both immigration advocates and border agents. It has also left President Joe Biden, a Democrat, open to criticism from Republicans that his mixed messaging at the border is encouraging more people to cross even as border facilities fill up past capacity amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The majority of migrants encountered at the border this year have been single adults mainly from Mexico who are often quickly deported and sometimes cross multiple times.
But the number of families arrested nearly tripled in February from a month earlier to about 19,000. During that same period, the number of unaccompanied children caught at the border rose as well, but at a slower pace.
“There is a lot of confusion because there is no hard and fast rule” when it comes to migrant families, said Charlene D’Cruz, the director of Lawyers for Good Government’s Project Corazon border rights program. “It seems ad hoc.”
Also over the weekend, even as the administration said the border was closed to families, it announced an $86 million contract to house some migrant families deemed vulnerable in U.S. hotels for processing. The contract is part of a new program managed by nonprofit organizations as an alternative to federal family detention centers.
Online forums are awash with questions from would-be migrants about the current status of the border and whether families with children are being allowed to cross. The posts, seen by Reuters, can net over a hundred often contradictory answers from fellow migrants and some claiming to be smugglers.
SOME EXPELLED, SOME RELEASED
Mayorkas said on Sunday that only unaccompanied minors were exempt from the expulsions policy, known as Title 42, that the Trump administration put in place in March 2020 at the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
But internal U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data shared with Reuters showed only around 15% of families apprehended on March 17 were expelled under Title 42. While just a one-day snapshot, the figure shows the uneven application of the policy across the border.
One reason: some local authorities in Mexico say they do not have the resources to deal with the sharp increase in the number of families, many traveling with very young children.
Tamaulipas state, across from the Rio Grande Valley, stopped receiving expelled families with children under 7 years of age earlier this year.
In a move that circumvents the Mexican state’s refusal, the Biden administration has begun flying hundreds of families – including parents traveling with babies and toddlers – hundreds of miles across Texas to El Paso only to expel them to Ciudad Juarez, according to Reuters’ witnesses and interviews with migrants.
At the same time, U.S. border patrol agents in the same Rio Grande Valley region – which is experiencing the highest number of crossings from Mexico – have begun releasing families into the United States without “notices to appear” in immigration court on specific dates, according to two CBP officials who requested anonymity to discuss internal operations.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Sarah Peck said that given fluctuating migration flows, “one day or week of statistics doesn’t reflect the full picture,” adding that the policy is still to expel families “and in situations where expulsion is not possible due to Mexico’s inability to receive the families, they are placed into removal proceedings.”
A CBP spokeswoman said all migrants go through routine background checks before being released.
The Trump administration also released some families without notices to appear in immigration court during a sharp upsurge in border crossings in 2019, according to a report published by two research centers at the University of California, San Diego.
Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar from Texas released photos on Monday showing people crammed closely together, some laying on mats or on the floor in a border patrol facility in Donna, Texas.
Cuellar wrote on Twitter that “more has to be done to address this growing humanitarian crisis” affecting migrant children.