WASHINGTON – Mexican law has prevented the United States from swiftly denying migrant families in one of the busiest sections of the southwest border, forcing officers to resume releasing families in the country, three officials say of the Biden administration.
The Trump administration began turning back migrants entering the United States in March, citing the threat of the coronavirus, and the emergency rule effectively sealed the border of asylum seekers. But due to a law passed by Mexico in November banning the detention of immigrant children and families, the country has stopped accepting such families from South Texas, an area typically prone to illegal crossings, officials said.
The recent change has alarmed officials in the Department of Homeland Security and presents an immediate challenge to the Biden administration. Homeland security officials have said the emergency rule is necessary to prevent the coronavirus from spreading in detention centers along the border, while preventing vulnerable families from making their asylum claims heard. A growing number of families have been detained in recent weeks at such facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, as well as in Del Rio, Texas, officials said.
Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Stephanie Malin said that due to pandemic precautions and social distancing guidelines, some facilities have reached their full “retention capacity.”
“CBP takes the safety and well-being of its workforce and those they encounter very seriously, and we are taking even more precautions because of Covid-19,” Ms. Malin said. “As always, the number of people crossing the border continues to fluctuate and we continue to adapt accordingly.” She said the agency was working with community organizations when releasing the migrants to the public.
The United States has returned more than 390,000 migrants to Mexico or their country of origin since March. The rule reduced the number of migrants detained on the US side of the border, but it also caused Central American families to scramble at times when they learned their children had been delivered to Mexico, a violation of international agreements. . And while the policy is a crucial part of the Trump administration’s attempts to close the border to migrants, the rule has also had the unintended effect of giving migrants more chances to enter illegally.
Customs and border protection recorded more than 73,000 crossings in December, an increase from more than 40,000 in July. Officers detained more than 40,000 migrants in December 2019.
Mexican law, which took effect in January, does not apply to the entire border, officials said. U.S. border officials still turn away single adults and, in places like Arizona, families as well, officials said. It is not known how the law will affect other parts of the border.
A spokesperson for Mexico’s Foreign Ministry declined to say whether it had stopped accepting migrant families, saying only that the United States continued to implement the emergency rule in the event of a pandemic.
But the Biden administration was unable to return migrant families to Reynosa, Mexico, a change first reported by The Washington Post. This change has raised concerns from customs and border protection about a potential increase in family crossings to the neighboring Rio Grande valley. Border crossings in recent years have been fueled mainly by Central American families fleeing persecution, violence and poverty.
The Department of Homeland Security is currently building a tent in Donna, Texas to house the migrants, but an administration official said this has nothing to do with Mexican law. Customs and border protection announced in November the closure of McAllen’s main detention center for renovations.
President Biden has campaigned to restore asylum to the Southwestern border and this week signed an executive order ordering the administration to review President Donald J. Trump’s restrictive policies.
The new administration has not publicly specified when the emergency pandemic rule will be lifted. After a federal judge in the District of Columbia lifted a blockade on the rule, which prevented the United States from refusing unaccompanied migrant children, the White House said it would use its discretion to decide when to apply the policy.
Mr Biden said in December his administration would take a cautious approach to reversing Trump-era policies to avoid a border surge.
His immigration plan involved relying more on post-release follow-up programs for migrants in the United States to ensure they show up to immigration court and less on detention.
Mexico, for its part, has been praised for imposing restrictions on those it detains.
“Mexico is taking a decisive step towards ending the detention of immigrant children and we are encouraged by this promising development,” said Gillian Triggs, Deputy High Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
While senior officials in the Trump administration have argued that his emergency rule was only an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Mr. Trump’s White House has attempted to use this policy to promote its policies. objectives of reducing illegal immigration.
Kirk Semple contributed reporting from Mexico City.