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More migrant families make it into United States, but thousands are still being expelled

Asylum-seeking migrant families and unaccompanied minors from Central America take refuge in a makeshift U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center under the Anzalduas International Bridge after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico in Granjeno, Tex., on Friday. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
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The Biden administration allowed the majority of migrant families surrendering at the U.S.-Mexico border to enter the United States in February instead of expelling them under a public health order imposed early in the pandemic, a move officials signaled is due to Mexico’s inability to care for them and not a major U.S. policy shift on the border.

While much attention has been focused on the rush of children and teens arriving at the border without their parents, the administration is also struggling to shelter and quickly process a rapidly increasing number of families.

Nearly 60 percent of the 19,246 “family units” — which typically include at least one parent and one child — taken into custody at the southwestern border last month were allowed to stay in the United States to await an immigration hearing, the latest Customs and Border Protection figures show, compared with 38 percent of the families that arrived in January.

Biden administration officials warned that they are continuing to expel thousands of migrants — including families — to nations such as Haiti and Mexico under Title 42, a public health order the Trump administration issued in March 2020, ostensibly to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, though many considered it another way for President Donald Trump to impose his anti-immigration agenda. The Biden administration has kept the order in place, although it is under increasing pressure to drop it and reverse the expulsions.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified for more than four hours Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee and declined to call the situation at the border a “crisis.” He said the influx is part of a recurring trend that responds to conditions in migrants’ home countries.

GOP lawmakers were at times exasperated by Mayorkas’s carefully worded responses, and Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) said he found the secretary’s testimony “nauseating.”

Asked by Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kan.) whether he thought the migration surge was the result of Biden’s more-welcoming approach to immigration and his decision to unwind Trump administration policies, Mayorkas said, “I do not.”

But Mayorkas acknowledged that the number of border crossings is rising. He said the Title 42 expulsion order remains in effect for everyone except for unaccompanied minors.

“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,” Mayorkas said in a lengthy statement outlining the administration’s plans Tuesday. “We are expelling most single adults and families.”

The latest CBP figures show that most families were not expelled in February. Mayorkas did not indicate when the administration might lift Trump’s public health order.

In raw numbers, the U.S. government still expelled thousands of migrants last month as the total number of crossings rose. Mayorkas said in Tuesday’s statement that he is “working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families.”

A spokesman for the Mexican Embassy declined to comment, but Mexico has struggled to find shelter space and refused to take back some children and families, citing a new law that does not allow them to be held in immigration detention.

Biden faces growing political threat from border upheaval

The American Civil Liberties Union is expected to decide by Tuesday whether to press a judge to halt the expulsions happening under Title 42, after giving the Biden administration a month to consider ending them. Rescinding Trump’s order would undoubtedly lead to an even larger increase in the number of migrants allowed to stay in the United States, lawmakers say.

“We would like to see no family expelled without a hearing,” said ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt. He said the question for the administration is: “Which direction are they moving in and how quickly?”

Border apprehensions began to rise before Trump left office but soared after Biden arrived and promised to rescind his predecessor’s restrictive immigration policies.

Detentions surpassed 100,000 in February, a 28 percent increase from the month before. Arrivals of unaccompanied minors rose to 9,297 in February, a 63 percent increase over the month before. In the Rio Grande Valley, where Mayorkas said capacity is especially strained, approximately 10,500 family units arrived in February, up from less than 2,000 in that sector the month before.

As with previous migration influxes in 2014 and 2019, the government is struggling to provide shelter space to those it processes and facing policy frustrations.

All of this comes as the Biden administration, which took office barely two months ago, juggles a number of other challenges, including rolling out the coronavirus vaccine, reviving the economy and pushing several pieces of legislation, including an effort to pass laws that would allow 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already living in the United States to apply for citizenship.

Biden will deploy FEMA to care for teenagers and children crossing border in record numbers

Republicans have been criticizing the new administration for unwinding Trump’s border policies, saying migrant smugglers are taking advantage.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Tuesday called on the Biden administration to expel “all foreign nationals” at the border, including unaccompanied minors.

“If you let them in, more will come,” he said in a tweet.

But advocates for immigrants say the rising tallies are misleading because the Trump administration expelled the same people more than once, creating a pent-up demand on the Mexican side of the border.

Thousands of migrants were sent to Mexico to wait for their court hearings under Trump’s “Migrant Protection Protocols,” or MPP, starting in 2019. Officials carried out more than 500,000 expulsions over the past year, a count that would include the same person being repeatedly expelled. Some were dispatched on airplanes directly to nations such as Haiti. But Central Americans and Mexicans were returned to Mexico.

Migrants are fleeing the aftermath of a pair of powerful hurricanes that left thousands homeless in Honduras and wrecked vast swaths of farmland in Guatemala, threatening the food supply, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Government corruption, poverty and violence in their homelands are also driving people north, officials at the Department of Homeland Security said.

“Nobody is coming to the U.S. for fun,” said Shalyn Fluharty, director of Proyecto Dilley, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to migrant families at a family detention facility in Texas. “They face really significant danger in their home countries and Mexico.

“Every single day that Title 42 continues to exist is a day that our government is doing something disgraceful and inhumane, and it should end.”

Hundreds of minors are crossing the border each day without their parents. Who are they?

Allowing in some migrants while continuing to expel others is leading to painful separations at the border, advocates for immigrants said.

Amy Maldonado, an immigration lawyer, said CBP separated a 4-year-old Guatemalan girl from her great-aunt this month as they arrived seeking asylum and hoping to join the little girl’s parents and siblings in Silver Spring, Md. The girl had been left with caregivers in 2019 when her parents journeyed to the United States, planning to send for the child they left behind.

Maldonado said border officials expelled the great-aunt and her own 8-year-old daughter to Mexico and held the 4-year-old in Border Patrol custody for an entire weekend. The girl’s frantic parents contacted their pastor and then Maldonado to search for the child.

“They did not know from Friday night to Sunday night where their child was,” Maldonado said. “Monday morning, Mom got a call from the Border Patrol and her kid was sobbing uncontrollably.”

Maldonado said the mother offered to fly to Texas to pick up her daughter. Instead, the government flew the child to Chicago and then drove her to foster care in Michigan, where she stayed for a week until she could join her parents on Friday. CBP and Maldonado disagree on whether the law allows it to separate the child from her aunt.

The girl’s 25-year-old mother, who did not want to be named for fear of hurting her asylum case, said in a phone interview that officials treated her daughter like a prisoner, taking away her ponytail elastics and shoelaces. She worried about the girl’s great-aunt, who is now in Mexico.

“They just left her on the border,” she said. “She’s going to try to come back.”

Mayorkas said the Biden administration is striving to create an orderly immigration system that would bypass the need for smugglers and the dangerous journey north.

But for now, he said, it is expanding shelters for unaccompanied children and families in Texas and Arizona, and reinstating a refugee program for Central American minors that would allow them to apply from their homelands. It is also gradually allowing an estimated 25,000 migrants with active MPP cases to begin entering the United States, a process that Mayorkas called “the road map going forward for a system that is safe, orderly, and fair.”

Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, a network of shelters in the El Paso area, said he opposed expelling families and was glad to see more arriving on buses and planes in the past week. But he said the pandemic makes it difficult to stop the expulsions without a plan to avoid a crush at the border.

“The concern is that you’re going to see a huge number of people cross over. What makes it very, very challenging is the pandemic,” he said. “That’s the game changer.”

Nick Miroff contributed to this report.