With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.
- President Joe Biden announced an expansion of the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, recently prolonged by the U.S. Supreme Court, to encompass citizens of Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua, earning strong criticism from migrant rights’ advocates. The announcement came with a new “humanitarian parole” policy for those countries’ citizens, and plans to expand use of a CBP app to process protection-seeking migrants’ requests. Biden then paid a brief visit to El Paso en route to a meeting of North American leaders in Mexico City.
- Mexican border cities are bracing for the first arrivals from these expanded Title 42 expulsions.
- U.S. border cities received visits over the past few days from 11 U.S. senators: a bipartisan delegation that went to El Paso and Yuma, and an all-Republican delegation that visited Del Rio.
Migration a central issue as Biden visits El Paso and Mexico City
U.S. border and migration policy started 2023 with an eventful week. To recap:
- In a January 5 policy speech, President Joe Biden announced an expansion of the Title 42 pandemic policy to encompass new nationalities’ land-border expulsions into Mexico, along with a new humanitarian parole program for citizens of those nationalities. (WOLA’s January 6 Border Update discussed this new policy at length.)
- On January 8, President Biden paid a visit to El Paso, Texas.
- On January 9 and 10, President Biden was in Mexico City for a summit of North American leaders, at which migration was a principal issue.
- On January 12, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began employing its “CBP One” smartphone app to manage applications for Title 42 exemptions, granted to asylum seekers deemed most vulnerable.
Biden gave his January 5 White House speech nine days after the Supreme Court ruled that the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy must remain in place for months pending later decisions. As discussed in WOLA’s January 6 update, up to 30,000 citizens per month from Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua are now subject to rapid Title 42 expulsion into Mexico if they are apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, regardless of their stated need for asylum or other forms of protection in the United States. Mexico now accepts land-border Title 42 expulsions of eight countries’ citizens, including its own.
The same monthly number of those countries’ citizens may access a two-year “ humanitarian parole” status in the United States i, which requires them to have a sponsor in the United States, a valid or recently expired passport, and passage of a background check. The first two hurdles, in particular, stand in many would-be parole applicants’ way.
Part of the parole application process involves registration via the CBP One smartphone app, which the agency has been rolling out “as a single portal to a variety of CBP services.” The Biden administration announced that the app will now also play a major role in asylum processing. As of January 12, asylum seekers must use the app to access a system of exemptions to Title 42, applying from outside the United States for appointments to present themselves at certain land ports of entry.
Over the past year, CBP has been granting a slowly expanding number of exemptions to Title 42, allowing asylum seekers who “meet specific vulnerability criteria” to approach land-border ports of entry on appointment. This initiative had relied on vulnerability recommendations made by humanitarian groups, immigration lawyers, and other service providers, with at times uncomfortable results. As of January 12, CBP intends for the CBP One app to become the main channel for seeking exemptions.
This use of the app is “an experiment,” an unnamed senior administration official told CNN. “Work is underway to build out the portal and is expected to come together in the next several months.” Critics of the process worry about CBP’s use of location and other data that the app gathers, and the possibility that it could exclude some of the most threatened. “Asking people fleeing for their lives to download an app and wait for months in their home country, where they are in mortal danger, is next-level cynicism,” wrote Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle.
President Biden’s policy speech, further detailed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), included other proposals. For migrants who cannot be expelled easily under Title 42, DHS plans to increase use of “expedited removal”: migrants who do not specifically claim fear of persecution if returned, or who fail a credible fear interview with an asylum officer, will be repatriated quickly. It is not clear how broadly the expedited removal policy might expand, as DHS would incur significant cost removing migrants by air.
Migrant advocates are alarmed by a DHS and Department of Justice (DOJ) plan to issue a proposed rule that would deny asylum, with exceptions, to migrants who pass through other countries on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. The so-called “transit ban” proposal resembles on the surface a policy that the Trump administration implemented in 2019, only to see it struck down by a federal court in 2020. Migrants who “circumvent available, established pathways to lawful migration, and also fail to seek protection in a country through which they traveled on their way to the United States, will be subject to a rebuttable presumption of asylum ineligibility in the United States unless they meet exceptions that will be specified,” a DHS document explained. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that further details about this proposed rule will be “available in the coming weeks.”
Four Democratic senators joined advocacy groups’ opposition to the proposed “transit ban,” warning in a statement that it “will disregard our obligations under international law by banning families from seeking asylum at the border, likely separating families and stranding migrants fleeing persecution and torture in countries unable to protect them.” Mexico’s chief diplomat for North America, Roberto Velasco, told the New York Times that any so-called “safe third country” attempt to send asylum seekers back to Mexico to apply for asylum there “is a red line for us… it would overwhelm the system.” Added Ana Lorena Delgadillo of Mexico’s non-governmental Foundation for Justice, “Mexicans are fleeing violence in their own communities. How are we going to protect others if we cannot protect our own?”
A White House document relating President Biden’s visit to Mexico City mentioned a few other small initiatives on migration cooperation.
- The United States would help Mexico establish a migrant resource center in its southern-border city of Tapachula, from where people would be able to access information about how to apply to migrate to the U.S. and obtain assistance in Mexico. Confusingly, though, at the North American leaders’ joint January 10 press appearance in Mexico City, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said, “We are not thinking of building any center in the southeastern part of Mexico—any migration center. We’re not thinking of that. What we do is help with shelters, with healthcare services, with food services as well.”
- The United States, Canada, and Mexico committed to “sharing best practices to increase promptness, efficiency, and fairness for the asylum processing systems.”
- They agreed to counter “xenophobia and discrimination against migrants and refugees by promoting balanced public narratives on migrants and refugees to support their meaningful inclusion in the region.”
- They committed to increase coordination on a strategy to crack down on northbound drug trafficking and southbound weapons trafficking. The presidential visit came just days after a bloody Mexican operation in Sinaloa state that captured the son of jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a reputed top figure in the Sinaloa Cartel organized-crime network.
As they reduce access to asylum and send a message of tightening at the border, the announced policy changes “were viewed as a win for presidential advisers with a background in national security over the more-liberal immigration policy advocates who are also part of Biden’s team,” the Washington Post reported.
Still, the measures, and Biden’s decision to visit the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time in his presidency, faced sharp criticism from the right. “This checks a box, but it doesn’t even begin to solve the problems we are facing there,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), the ranking Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, told the Washington Post. “Your visit to our southern border with Mexico today is $20 billion too little and two years too late,” read a letter that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) handed President Biden upon his arrival in El Paso. A letter from 14 Republican members of Texas’s House of Representatives delegation called on Biden to take even harder steps, like getting Mexico to agree to revive the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program. America First Legal, the far-right NGO led by former Trump White House advisor Stephen Miller, promised to “pursue every available legal remedy” to block the Biden administration’s expansion of humanitarian parole, which it called a “colossal horror.”
Biden’s proposals faced strong criticism from backers of the right to seek asylum. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the Title 42 expansion “a disastrous and inhumane relic of the Trump administration’s racist immigration agenda.” Andrea Flores, who worked on immigration policy in the White House during the Biden administration’s first year and is now an advisor to Sen. Menendez, told the Washington Post that the new policy could send “bona fide asylum seekers” back to danger in Mexico, while allowing well-connected migrants facing less danger to access protection using an app. “Democrats must refuse to participate in Republicans’ games with people’s lives,” added a statement from the House Progressive Caucus.
“It’s enraging and sad to see a Democratic administration make it harder for vulnerable people to seek asylum all because they’re scared of angry MAGA voters on this issue,” a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) told CNN. Both CNN and CBS News reported on a blistering virtual meeting White House and DHS officials held with Democratic CHC members. The legislators said they felt “blindsided” by the announced policy changes, which had not been consulted with them. “The lawmakers were ‘pissed’… ‘It was pretty brutal,’” CBS reported that a participant in the meeting said.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which has stated several times its opposition to Title 42 because it blocks the internationally recognized right to seek asylum, repeated that position in a January 6 statement published to the United Nations’ main website. “What we are reiterating is that this is not in line with refugee law standards and that to establish a link between safe and legal pathways which have been announced and of course we welcome the expansion of those on one side that are accessible for some people with curtailment for the right to seek asylum for many more who are ineligible for these pathways,” said UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov.
Asked about the policy changes’ critics, Biden replied, “both the extremes are wrong. It’s a basic middle proposition.” He repeated an administration talking point portraying the October 12, 2022 expansion of Title 42 expulsions to Venezuelans as a “success,” noting that the arrival of Venezuelan migrants at the border “has dropped off dramatically…from 1,100 persons trying to enter to—per day—to 250 a day.”
The President was in El Paso, Texas for four hours on the afternoon of Sunday, January 8. CNN called it a “tightly controlled” (AP said “highly controlled”) tour of a stretch of border wall and a port of entry facility, followed by a meeting with community leaders at El Paso County’s recently established Migrant Services Center. Biden did not interact with any migrants. “Biden’s visit to the border got him a small bit of rhetorical breathing room and certainly brought him closer to the problem in a literal sense,” wrote Washington Post analyst Philip Bump. “It didn’t get him closer to a solution.”