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DJ Border Patrol Releases More Migrants Into U.S. After Mexico Stops Taking Some Back

· 02/04/2021 14:23
By Alicia A. Caldwell and Jose de Cordoba

U.S. Border Patrol agents are increasingly releasing asylum-seeking families into the U.S. after Mexican authorities began refusing to take some families back in January, U.S. officials said.

In recent weeks, an influx of families arriving along parts of the border has filled some holding facilities, where capacity has been reduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Customs and Border Protection said in a statement.

"Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren't possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a Notice to Appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing," CBP said in a statement Thursday. CBP said the Biden administration will continue using what legal authorities it has to keep migrants out of crowded detention facilities during the pandemic.

Mexican immigration and foreign ministry officials said Mexico hasn't ended its practice of accepting all returned migrants, but officials in some stretches of the border have made "adjustments" to accommodate a change in Mexico's immigration law that bars officials from holding migrant children and their families in detention centers run by the immigration service. Those migrants must now be turned over to the DIF, Mexico's social-service agency for children and families.

"The law says we can't have minors in immigration centers; they must be taken to shelters run by the DIF, where they wait until their migratory status is defined," said a spokeswoman for Mexico's immigration agency.

The abrupt change is posing an immediate challenge to the Biden administration's plans to slowly overhaul a series of border restrictions implemented by former President Trump. The new administration's plan had called for leaving in place for now a 1944 law that allowed immigration authorities to quickly return nearly all migrants caught crossing the border illegally back to Mexico before they had an opportunity to ask for refuge in the U.S.

U.S. immigration officials turned back more than 380,000 migrants, including thousands of families and unaccompanied children, between March and December. Trump administration officials said the returns were necessary to avoid possible outbreaks of Covid-19 inside cramped border facilities.

Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security Department agency that includes the Border Patrol, has said it doesn't conduct Covid-19 tests before turning back migrants. Migrants who are sick or show symptoms of Covid-19 are generally taken to local hospitals. The agency didn't respond to questions about whether families are being tested before their release to aid agencies.

The Trump administration stopped turning back unaccompanied children after a federal court blocked the policy in November. An appeals court last month overturned that ruling, but the Biden administration has said it planned to continue referring unaccompanied children to federal child-welfare agencies.

The release of families at the border was previously reported by The Washington Post.

The number of families arriving at the border has been steadily increasing since May, after declining in the months before the pandemic. Since October, more than 4,000 people traveling as families have been arrested each month, according to federal data. CBP didn't say how many families have been released since January.

Aid groups along the border in Texas say the number of migrants released to their care has been dramatically increasing in recent weeks.

In Del Rio, a border city about 150 miles west of San Antonio, the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition told supporters on its Facebook page in late January that about 50 people a day were now being dropped off by Border Patrol agents at its shelter. Previously about 25 people a week were being helped, the group said.

Monday the group posted that "VVBHC has our hands full!" along with a photo of a fully loaded Border Patrol bus dropping off migrants.

The uptick in arrivals of families has worried border officials for months and was seen as an early challenge for President Biden, who as a candidate had pledged to unwind many of the Trump administration's immigraiton policies, including a program that forced migrants to wait in Mexico while their U.S. court cases were decided.

Mr. Biden has issued multiple executive orders on immigration, including one banning new enrollment in the Migrant Protection Protocols, routinely called the Remain in Mexico program, but hasn't announced plans for the fate of thousands of migrants still waiting in Mexico. The president also has left in place the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Title 42 authority, which allows border officials to turn back migrants during the pandemic.

Trump administration officials had warned that dismantling that administration's strict immigration policies could lead to a new migrant crisis like that of 2019, when a record of more than 473,000 people traveling as families were caught crossing the border illegally.

--Santiago Perez contributed to this article.

Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at Alicia.Caldwell@wsj.com and Jose de Cordoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 04, 2021 14:23 ET (19:23 GMT)

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