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Here’s What You Need To Know About Immigration At The Texas Border Under President Biden

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, flikr photographer Donna Burton / http://bit.ly/2Bxurr1

Lee esta historia en español.

President Joe Biden unwound former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including allowing some asylum-seeking families through the Texas border as more migrants seek to enter the United States.

Some immigration advocates praised the Biden administration’s policy changes. But the administration’s handling of migrants also spurred criticism from both sides of the immigration debate, particularly from Republicans such as Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott called on Biden to stop releasing migrant families arriving at the border, misleadingly tweeting that the Democratic administration is “recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities.”

During a recent visit to the border, he announced that he would deploy Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard resources to “high threat areas to deny Mexican cartels and other smugglers the ability to move drugs and people into Texas.”

But the U.S.-Mexico border remained closed to many people, including most migrants and asylum seekers, and those allowed in were tested for COVID-19.

Here’s a rundown of what’s happening at the border and what changes the Biden administration has made. Save this page for updates from TPR reporters.

Migrant family releases

The Biden administration began releasing some asylum-seeking migrant families in the Rio Grande Valley because of policy changes in the U.S. and Mexico. This resulted in migrant families being released in McAllen and Brownsville, among other cities. But in other parts of the border, including El Paso, migrant families were still sent to shelters in Mexico.

In the Rio Grande Valley, the State of Texas sent to McAllen and Brownsville thousands of COVID-19 tests for migrants released by Border Patrol after some officials raised concerns about COVID-19. Since late January, at least 108 migrants have tested positive in Brownsville, Noticias Telemundo Investiga reported. But the City of Brownsville said the rate of positives for migrants, measured at 6.3%, was lower than Cameron County’s rate of 13.8%.

Non-profit organizations like Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley also helped take in and test migrants moving through the area before they boarded buses to other parts of the country as they waited to apply for asylum. Catholic Charities booked hotels in case any migrants needed to quarantine, Executive Director Sister Norma Pimentel explained.

CNN reported that the Biden administration planned to assist border communities in testing migrants through FEMA funds, but that Abbott had not yet signed off on the plan. Abbott later tweeted he would not help in a program that “makes our country a magnet of illegal immigration.”

But local governments and nonprofits can now apply for FEMA reimbursements without approval from Abbott through the National Board for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.

To receive funds for the costs associated with testing or caring for migrants, organizations and cities must apply for the reimbursements. The latest stimulus package included an additional $110 million in humanitarian aid funds.

The federal government is now transferring some migrant families from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso, Laredo and Del Rio to help ease overcrowding at local facilities, as El Paso Matters first reported. Several temporary sites have been opened to take in minors and families.

‘Remain in Mexico’

This Trump-era policy, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases played out in U.S. immigration court. Many ended up in dangerous and squalid living conditions, in makeshift tent camps or shelters along the border. A report from Human Rights First found more than 1,500 reported cases of violence against asylum seekers in MPP.

Biden suspended “Remain in Mexico” on his first day in office and announced that no one else would be enrolled in the program.

The new administration is now allowing an estimated 25,000 asylum seekers who still have active court cases to gradually enter the U.S., out of around 70,000 who were initially placed in MPP. Some have been waiting in Mexico for up to two years.

Eligible asylum seekers are processed at three ports of entry: in Brownsville and El Paso, and in San Ysidro, California. The goal is to eventually process around 300 people per day.

The Biden administration will now begin reprocessing more asylum-seekers at the Hidalgo and Laredo ports of entry this upcoming week, the Department of Homeland Security announced.

Before crossing into the U.S., asylum seekers must take a COVID-19 test administered by the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. Those who test positive have to quarantine in Mexico, and they can enter the U.S. once they test negative.

In El Paso, asylum seekers spend between 24 and 96 hours at a hospitality site run by the non-profit Annunciation House, where volunteers help them contact family members or other sponsors throughout the U.S.

“Those family members will purchase bus tickets or plane tickets, and then they will be on their way,” said Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House. “Ninety nine point nine percent of everyone who will come to us will be leaving El Paso in pretty short order.”

In Brownsville, asylum seekers are released at the local bus station. Non-profit organizations like Team Brownsville and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley are on hand to provide food, clothes, and diapers and help coordinate travel plans.

In Laredo, Sister Rosemary Welsh of Mercy Ministries said she thinks they'll see 500 asylum-seekers. She runs a shelter specifically for migrants affected by domestic violence but said they are working with Catholic Charities and Holding Institute to shelter more migrants in Laredo.

“The cartels are really taking advantage of the people," she said. "And that's why I'm so glad the MPP, that people are beginning to come across, because really, they should have been able to come across several years ago.”

Only asylum seekers with pending cases in U.S. immigration court are currently eligible to enter the U.S. Lawyers and advocates say migrants who were denied asylum while enrolled in “Remain in Mexico” or ordered deported after missing a court date should be “given a second chance to come to the United States.”

Title 42 Expulsions

In late March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health order thateffectively closed the border to unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Citing a public health code called Title 42, immigration officials began quickly expelling migrants at the border without processing or formally deporting them. Advocates say most migrants are turned away without access to due process.

Officials initially expelled unaccompanied minors under Title 42 but the Biden administration ended the practice. It had not lifted the public health order, however, and single adults and families were still quickly expelled.

In January, dozens of public health experts sent a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, urging her to rescind the order, which they claimed was “discriminatory and has no scientific basis as a public health measure.”

However, the order remained in effect. At a press briefing on March 1, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas urged migrants and asylum seekers to wait for the administration to “rebuild” the immigration process before coming to the border.

“It takes time to rebuild the system from scratch,” he said. “If they come — if families come, if single adults come to the border -- we are obligated to, in the service of public health — including the health of the very people who are thinking of coming — to impose the travel restrictions under the CDC’s Title 42 authorities and return them to Mexico.”

Temporary migrant facilities

To cope with a rising number of migrants arriving at the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection opened or planned new temporary facilities, many of which are called soft-sided because of their use of tents.

In February, a soft-sided facility opened at Donna in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the busiest migrant entry points. The facility was planned before Biden became president, but the Biden administration developed plans for more soft-sided facilities in Eagle Pass and in other areas.

Biden also reopened an influx center in Carrizo Springs specifically for child migrants. This facility is under the federal Department of Health and Human Services. It is different from the holding cells used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CBP which spurred the outcry of “kids in cages.” HHS facilities are to provide education and better care for migrants, although past government and news reports also documented issues in these types of facilities.

Most recently, HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement announced it plans to open a second in Carrizo Springs
to take in 500 migrant minors under 17 when the site is ready to safely receive children.

HHS is also scouting more potential sites in Texas to house the growing number of unaccompanied migrant children, including county and military buildings in San Antonio and land on El Paso’s Fort Bliss.

The federal agency previously announced or opened three other emergency sites for migrant children in West Texas and a convention center in Dallas.

Last weekend, it announced it will use lodging in Pecos once it is ready to safely receive children. HHS also converted a "man camp" for oilfield workers in Midland into an emergency intake center for teen boys, local officials said.

The federal agency said the emergency intake center was needed to minimize the number of unaccompanied minors in CBP facilities and to improve the conditions at facilities run by its Office of Refugee Resettlement.

A convention center in Dallas is also expected to house up to 3,000 teenage immigrants under HHS.

Due to the high influx of children, facilities were allowed to operate at pre-pandemic levels, and children have been reported to be held for days without access to resources.

Within days of opening the Midland center, the federal government stopped taking migrant teens there due to COVID-19 cases and other concerns, the Associated Press reported.

The federal government also directed FEMA, which normally offers aid after natural disasters, to assist for a period of 90 days in taking in and placing unaccompanied minors with a family member or sponsor until their immigration case is decided.

Family Residential Centers

The Biden administration planned to repurpose its Texas family residential centers in Dilley and Karnes from detention centers to sites for screening migrant children and families for COVID-19, according to multiple news reports.

The San Antonio Express-News reported non-profits were informed of the transformation into “reception centers” in a call last month, and theWashington Post reported it had obtained a draft of the plans for the centers.

The Biden administration aimed to release screened migrants into the country within 72 hours, the Post reported.

Border travel restrictions

The federal government closed U.S. borders to all but travel deemed essential in March 2020. Only U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and foreigners crossing for trade, work, education, military or diplomatic affairs and health care may cross through border bridges.

The pandemic policy prevented Mexican shoppers and tourists from crossing the land ports at the border and spending money in border communities and other Texas cities like San Antonio. It also cut off some families from each other or from caregivers.

Up until recently, Americans and foreigners could freely fly into the country, but in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced airline passengers would be required to present a negative test before they could board flights.

In January, Biden ordered federal agencies to quickly develop a plan for "appropriate public health measures at land ports of entry," but his administration extended the current border restrictions through March. They have now been extended through April 21.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Updated: March 20, 2021 at 6:10 PM CDT
Updated on March 9, 16 and 20 with more news.
María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria
Mallory Falk
Mallory Falk covers El Paso and the border for the Texas news hub, the prototype for NPR's new system of regional journalism hubs. Previously she worked as a reporter at KRWG in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio. Her reporting has aired nationally on programs including Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Here & Now. A winner of multiple regional Edward R. Murrow awards, Mallory is based in El Paso, and is part of the national Report for America project, which aims to support journalists in underserved areas of America.