With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.
Unaccompanied child arrivals, influx center feed both “surge” and “kids in cages” narratives
While we try to keep these updates brief, this topic has to start with several bullets of context, which has been absent from some recent media coverage, feeding misunderstandings about unaccompanied children currently arriving at the border. If you’re familiar with the context, skip past these bullets.
- By law, children from non-contiguous countries (neither Canada nor Mexico) who are apprehended without adult accompaniment at the border are not deported immediately. They are placed into asylum proceedings. This is meant to be a protection against child trafficking. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 requires that after apprehending an underage migrant from a non-contiguous country who arrives unaccompanied, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has 72 hours to transfer that child to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services). ORR maintains a network of shelters for unaccompanied minors from other countries.
- The 72-hour handoff from CBP to ORR custody is important. CBP’s holding facilities for apprehended migrants—mainly, Border Patrol stations—are designed to hold single adults for a few hours.
- ORR’s shelters are not “kids in cages.” Under normal circumstances, they are state-licensed childcare facilities run by contractors, where kids stay while awaiting placement with relatives or sponsors. An exception, discussed below, are temporary “influx” facilities thrown together when child arrivals increase, where conditions may be more austere.
- ORR must seek to place children in its shelters with family members or sponsors in the United States to await their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. This process can take days or weeks. It involves background checks of the relatives or sponsors who come to pick them up, in order to avoid inadvertently handing children over to human traffickers. Often, the relatives who take custody are undocumented. For a time during the Trump administration, ORR was sharing information about these relatives with ICE, which made them reluctant to appear and take children, causing ORR’s shelter population to balloon. The Trump administration ultimately had to back off that policy.
- Unaccompanied children, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, arrived at the border in large numbers during mid-2014, mid-2015, late 2016, and between mid-2018 and mid-2019. These increases in unaccompanied child migration tended to correspond with increases in family (parent and child) migration.
- When COVID-19 border measures went into place in March 2020, the Trump administration began expelling unaccompanied children as quickly as possible, along with nearly all other apprehended migrants, including would-be asylum seekers. As a pretext for overriding the 2008 Wilberforce anti-trafficking law, it cited an obscure public health quarantine provision in Title 42 of the U.S. code. While Mexico agreed to take expelled adults and families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, it did not agree to receive non-Mexican unaccompanied children, whom ICE expelled via aircraft back to their home countries. (Nonetheless, and horrifyingly, the New York Times revealed in October 2020 that CBP had indeed expelled some Central American children, alone, into Mexico.)
- In November 2020, a U.S. district judge blocked the Trump administration from expelling unaccompanied children apprehended at the border. CBP resumed placing them in ORR shelters, which were close to empty at the time.
- Joe Biden was inaugurated in January, but his administration has not revoked the Title 42 expulsions policy: would-be asylum seekers are still being expelled. Officials say they need time to build up the necessary infrastructure to process asylum seekers during a pandemic, since the Trump administration left little capacity behind.
- Shortly after inauguration, an appeals court panel of three Trump-appointed judges overruled the November 2020 block on expelling unaccompanied minors. The new Biden administration, however, refused to resume expelling apprehended children—even as it continues to expel adults, and adult parents with children.
Before the pandemic, Border Patrol was apprehending roughly 3,000 unaccompanied children each month. That dropped sharply after March 2020, when borders closed throughout the Americas. Numbers of apprehended children steadily increased through 2020, though, reaching the pre-pandemic level of 3,000 in August, surpassing 4,000 in October, and reaching 5,707 in January 2021. The pace is increasing: during the week of February 14-20, CBS News reports, Border Patrol apprehended “more than 1,500 migrant children” and “on Sunday [February 21], an additional 300 minors were taken into custody.”
The increase owes in part to the Trump expulsions policy causing “a backlog of minors waiting to seek asylum,” as CBS News put it, citing a shelter official who noted that “it created a bubble that is bursting because now they can get in.” It also owes to parents stuck in Mexican border cities making a heartbreaking choice: attempt to cross the border with children and be expelled, wait indefinitely in Mexico, or send their children across alone, where they might be apprehended and reunited with relatives in the United States.
The increase in unaccompanied child arrivals has caused the ORR shelter population to grow rapidly: the count on February 22, according to CBS, was 7,100. That leaves “fewer than 900 empty beds” because COVID-19 measures have compelled ORR to reduce its 13,200-bed capacity to 8,000. This comes with an increase in the population of children in Border Patrol’s holding cells, where they can legally be for no longer than 72 hours: “roughly 750” as of February 19. In January, 179 children exceeded the 72-hour limit because of capacity issues.
With only five weeks in office, the Biden administration has recurred to a controversial measure: temporary “influx facilities” to handle the overflow of unaccompanied children. ORR has set up a 66-acre, 700-child capacity tent facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, to hold children aged 13 to 17. The agency’s stated goal is that children at the facility, managed by nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services, stay there no longer than about 30 days, following two weeks of quarantine at other ORR shelters.
As they sit on federally owned land, influx facilities like Carrizo, and a possible second site south of Miami in Homestead, Florida, are not subject to state licensing like other ORR child shelters. During the Trump administration, the Homestead site, run by a for-profit corporation with former Homeland Security secretary John Kelly on its board, came under heavy fire for living conditions, cost, and lack of transparency, as did a tent facility in Tornillo, Texas. While access to these remotely located sites is restricted in the name of protecting children from traffickers, the lack of visibility over what happens inside worries child advocates.
Some Democrats, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julián Castro, and Jamaal Bowman, were quick to criticize the Carrizo Springs shelter’s opening. “We should not go in this direction again,” Castro tweeted. “HHS-ORR should place these children in a home more quickly. Invest in personnel and policy to speed up placement. It’s safer, cheaper, and is in the children’s best interest.” Social media commentators on the left invoked a return to “kids in cages,” while some even conflated it with the Trump administration’s family separations.
On the right, commentators—also reviving the “kids in cages” slogan—claimed that the Biden administration’s use of an austere facility to house increased numbers of unaccompanied children vindicated the Trump approach of rapidly expelling them. Former Trump advisor Stephen Miller is urging members of Congress and conservative media to seize on a “Biden migrant surge” narrative to mobilize voters against Biden’s immigration reform legislation, and against Democratic candidates in the 2022 midterm legislative elections.
“It’s a temporary reopening during COVID-19,” White House Press Secretary Psaki said of the Carrizo Springs facility, adding, “This is not kids being kept in cages.” While certainly not “cages,” it is hard to argue that tent and shipping-container sites like Carrizo Springs are in children’s best interest. While recognizing that the Biden administration has not had time to develop a new approach—it hasn’t even nominated a CBP commissioner yet—advocacy groups are urging a quick phaseout of unlicensed “influx” shelters.
“Remain in Mexico” starts winding down
The Biden administration’s dismantling of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy became reality on February 19, as 25 asylum-seeking migrants who had been awaiting their U.S. immigration court date since 2019 crossed from Tijuana, Mexico, into San Diego County. (“Remain in Mexico,” also known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP, was a Trump initiative that forced about 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearing dates on Mexican soil.)
The process at San Diego’s San Ysidro port of entry “was orderly, safe and efficient,” read a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement. “After CBP and ICE processing was complete, facilitating organizations helped coordinate travel arrangements as needed.” On February 22, another 25 asylum seekers entered at San Ysidro. The goal is to increase the number who can be processed to about 200-300 per day.
In Mexico, the entry process for Remain in Mexico subjects takes place with assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other international and non-governmental organizations. Those with active MPP cases register at a website that went live on February 19; despite initial hiccups, 12,000 people signed up within the site’s first three days. The next step is COVID-19 testing performed by IOM while UNICEF ensures “humane treatment of children and their families,” a UNHCR release reads. “So far, no cases of COVID-19 have been detected,” the UN reported on February 25.
At the other end of the border, the Remain in Mexico wind-down began on February 25 between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas. Twenty-seven people crossed the Gateway International Bridge and were taken to the bus station to move on to destinations where most have relatives. “Smiles hidden under face masks were hard to see, but undeniably present” on their faces, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor reported. “For me it was an affirmation, it was a triumph of life, of humanity,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who for years has run a respite center for released migrants in McAllen.
Most of the first to arrive from Matamoros will be residents of a notorious tent camp where about 750 Remain in Mexico subjects have been forced to live since 2019. The expectation is to increase daily arrivals at Brownsville to about 200 per day, including many asylum seekers in Matamoros—a dangerous longtime stronghold of Mexico’s Gulf Cartel—who did not stay in the encampment.
As we write this on February 26, we’re hearing that 25 Remain in Mexico subjects were just allowed to cross from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso.
GAO reports on U.S. military border deployment
The Defense Department has spent about a billion dollars since 2018 to support the Trump administration’s National Guard and active-duty military deployments at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on February 23. The 90-page document, submitted in response to a request from Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Judiciary committees, contains much previously undisclosed information about the military mission.
In April 2018, in response to media reports of a “migrant caravan” making its way through Mexico, Donald Trump ordered National Guard troops to the border. It was the fourth time since 2002 that a president had ordered the National Guard to support CBP. In October of that year, as a new caravan formed in the runup to midterm legislative elections, Trump augmented that with a highly unusual deployment of active-duty army and marine personnel, a rarity on U.S. soil. At its height in November 2018, up to 2,579 National Guardsmen and 5,815 active-duty troops were involved.
About 3,600 active-duty troops remain available to support CBP, though many may be physically located at bases elsewhere in the United States. The mission is to extend at least through the fiscal year’s end on September 30, 2021. While the GAO report notes that DHS expects to continue requesting support from the Defense Department for three to five years, it’s not yet clear whether that will happen under the Biden administration.
Among the report’s notable findings:
- The Defense Department obligated at least $841 million between April 2018 and May 2020, and a table elsewhere in the report cites a figure of $1.001 billion. This is significantly more than what had been previously reported to Congress.
- Some of that reporting to Congress has been very late, and the Defense Department never even turned in a required report on expenditures for fiscal 2019, which was due on March 31, 2020.
- The Defense Department failed to reckon with the deployments’ potential costs, and with their effects on military readiness.
- The Defense Department received 33 different assistance and extension requests from DHS between April 2018 and March 2020.
- Missions included air support (helicopters), basic reconnaissance, construction of items like concertina wire along the border wall, detention support at holding facilities, logistical support, and driving and maintaining vehicles.
- DHS sought to have active-duty military personnel in roles that would involve direct contact with foreign nationals. The Defense Department resisted that, and such duties fell to National Guard personnel.
The report seems to indicate that the Defense Department regarded the border mission as a lower-priority role and a drag on readiness for higher-priority military missions. Commanders, as Stars and Stripes summarizes it, “shared experiences of missed training and the strain of rotating troops to the border every 30 days.” In a response to GAO, the Department sought to avoid recommending policy changes that would “create an impression that DOD has a border security mission.”
- 61 Democratic members of Congress signed a letter calling on the Biden administration to end Title 42 expulsions of asylum-seeking migrants.
- #WeCanWelcome Asylum Seekers is a new campaign from Refugees International, with a petition to the Biden administration, videos, a social media “toolkit,” and other informational resources about the United States’ “responsibility to welcome people seeking protection from persecution.”
- An eight-year-old Honduran boy and a Venezuelan woman drowned trying to swim across a frigid Rio Grande between Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas on February 17. The boy’s parents and sister apparently made it across, only to be expelled back to Mexico.
- Investigative journalist Alberto Pradilla revealed at Mexico’s Animal Político that the Mexican government’s “Fondo México,” ostensibly established to fund social programs in Central America to address migration’s root causes, has ended up paying only for the detention of migrants inside Mexico, and for buses to bring them back to Central America.
- The Central American Commission of Migration Directors (OCAM), made up of authorities from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, and Nicaragua, agreed on a vaguely worded three-point “action plan” to halt flows of extra-continental migrants (Haitians, Cubans, Asians, Africans) stranded in South America.
- Attorneys are still working to locate the deported parents of 506 children who were separated during the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. This represents progress: the number was 611 a month ago, CNN reports.
- Vice tells the story of 49-year-old Guatemalan migrant Édgar López, who had lived and worked for 22 years, and had a wife and kids, in Carthage, Mississippi—the town where ICE carried out a massive raid of chicken-plant workers in 2019. He was deported back to Guatemala. Édgar López’s effort to be reunited with his family ended on January 22, when he was one of 19 migrants massacred in northern Mexico, not far from the border, apparently by an elite Mexican state police unit.
- A 4th Circuit federal appeals judge has delayed the deportation of a former MS-13 gang member to El Salvador, ruling that former gang membership counts as a distinct social group, potentially eligible for asylum.
- The Biden administration announced that it is instructing ICE agents to prioritize for arrest “those suspected of being a national security threat, recent border crossers, and those who are considered a public safety threat,” and to seek pre-approval from local superiors before arresting people who don’t fit those priorities.