A public health order issued in late-March by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention barred unauthorized migrants from entering the U.S. The order cited concerns over the “introduction” of an infectious disease to the country, which in this case, is COVID-19. What was an initial effort to contain the spread of the pandemic has since thrown the U.S. asylum process into disarray.
Three reporters — from the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso and Mexico City — took a deep dive on how this CDC order affects the lives of asylum-seeking migrants by examining how it’s being implemented along the Texas-Mexico border.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped some people, including those seeking asylum, from crossing into the U.S. at its southern border. However, according to Rafael Garza, a special operations supervisor with the Border Patrol Sector in Laredo, the virus has changed how Border Patrol agents do their jobs.
“Obviously the use of Personal Protective Equipment, social distancing, the implementation of Title 42 has helped out to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus into the United States because all these people that are coming across that we do apprehend we don’t know their past travel history, where they’re coming from, what they’re bringing, if they’re symptomatic or asymptomatic,” said Garza.
Title 42 is part of the U.S. Code that deals with public health. The Trump administration cites Title 42 in the CDC’s order from March, and says that’s what allows officials to quickly return migrants who cross the border — even asylum seekers and children who are supposed to go through a formal legal process.
“We apprehend them, we give them a face mask and I ask them if they’re feeling any symptoms, ‘No I’m fine, this and that,’ and then we process them remotely without taking them to the station we’ll process them in a combined area, we process them in the field,” Garza said.
In early April, ProPublica obtained a leaked Border Patrol Memo showing guidance that informed agents how to enforce the new CDC order.
“What’s happening now is that with the CDC order under COVID, they are saying that public health law is basically superseding immigration law,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, the Director of immigration and cross border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She and other experts have said the Trump Administration’s use of Title 42 is unprecedented.
Title 42’s been around in some form since the 1890s and was originally enacted to stop boats from entering U.S. ports if they came from areas dealing with spikes in infectious diseases, like smallpox or cholera.
“In general, it’s been used in the past, or can be used, to prevent entry, or to quarantine people after they arrive, but as far as I know, this is the first time it's been used very broadly to apply strictly to people entering between the Ports of Entry in the U.S.-Mexico land border,” said Cardinal Brown.
A CBP spokesperson said in a statement, “by quickly expelling individuals who cross illegally, we protect them, our agents, and the American public from potential exposure to COVID-19.”
But migrant advocates and some policy experts disagree. The American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations said what’s happening is illegal and filed a lawsuit against this latest border restriction which largely bars migrants from entering the country. The medical community has pushed back, too.
“There was really no public health sense behind it, so it really categorically targets one particular group who is not anymore at likelihood to essentially spread COVID-19 than other groups that we are continually allowing into the United States,” said Peeler.
In May, Physicians for Human Rights told the CDC that asylum seekers are no more likely to spread COVID-19 than students, temporary workers and truck drivers who cross the border and are currently exempt from current border restrictions.
“This rule violates U.S. and international legal obligations toward asylum seekers looking for safe haven in the United States,” said Michel Heisler, the medical director of PHR, in a press release. “The administration is brazenly using COVID-19 to enact its immigration agenda, effectively dismantling decades of U.S. asylum policy under the guise of public health.”
CBP data shows that since the CDC order went into effect in late March there have been almost 70,000 Title 42 expulsions at the southern border.
Many individuals or families returned to Mexico aren’t from there and have no idea what to do next. Some end up homeless or targets for organized crime, which are just a few reasons groups like PHR and Amnesty International have said that these expulsions violate U.S refugee laws and treaty obligations.
These groups and others have said the federal government can both protect public health in the U.S. and migrants seeking protection.
When TPR reached out to CBP officials, a spokesperson for the agency responded in a statement saying Title 42 has helped mitigate the spread of COVID-19. “These measures will remain in place until the CDC Director determines that the danger of the further introduction of COVID-19 into the United States has ceased to be a serious danger to the public health,” said the statement.
In May, the CDC extended its public health order indefinitely.
An asylum seeker and her two young daughters crossed the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in early April when they encountered immigration officials.
“They grabbed us and told us that they were gonna take us back to Mexico,” she recalled. “They said that they weren’t letting anyone into the U.S. and we didn’t have any other option.”
The woman asked a KERA reporter not to use her name, out of concern for her safety.
It was around 3 a.m. when officials dropped her on the Santa Fe International Bridge and left her to fend for herself in an unfamiliar Mexican border city where she knew no one.
Around the same time, immigration lawyer Tania Guerrero started noticing something strange.
“We started seeing a few people come back from the United States without any documentation,” said Guerrero, who is based in Juárez and works with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
“They were being returned through Santa Fe bridge at really odd hours. Very, very late at night. In the middle of the night.”
Over the past year, many asylum seekers had been sent back to Mexico through the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP — but they were given paperwork with a hearing date in U.S. immigration court.
The people Guerro mentions were describing something different than MPP.
“They have been basically pushed away from the United States with no process whatsoever,” Guerrero said.
A Salvadoran woman, who also asked not to be identified due to safety concerns, arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border just 10 days after the CDC order went into effect.
She said she left El Salvador when an abusive ex-partner — the father of her child — threatened to kill her. She took her 4-year-old daughter and fled, but by the time she made it to the U.S.-Mexico border, it was effectively closed.
The woman said she was apprehended soon after crossing into Texas. Officials took her pictures and fingerprints and asked for identification. Then the family was taken to an international bridge, right back to Mexico. She said they didn’t explain what was happening, just told her she had to leave.
“I didn’t want to move from the bridge,” she said. “I begged them not to make me leave because I didn’t have anywhere to go.”
The woman said she pleaded for help finding a lawyer or judge, and told the officials she couldn’t go back to her home country — or Mexico, for that matter.
“They told me they didn’t care,” she said. “They didn’t care what happened to my life. That I could go to Mexico or El Salvador or wherever I wanted, but I wasn’t getting into the U.S.”
Eventually, the woman claimed, officials told her they would press charges if she refused to leave the bridge.
In general, migrant shelters in Juárez — which are trying to control the spread of COVID-19 — cannot immediately take in new residents. In May, a new “filter hotel” opened, where people who have been rapidly expelled from the U.S. can quarantine for 14 days before moving on to longer-term shelter.
Yet immigration attorney Tania Guerrero worries that people being dropped off at a bridge, in the middle of the night could fall through the cracks.
“People are just left to their own devices,” she said. “Sometimes they’re lucky to find Mexican authorities or Mexican authorities find them.”
Then, Guerrero explained, these authorities direct migrants to the filter hotel. But fears of possible detainment by federal authorities or deportation can be a major barrier for migrants seeking help once left abandoned.
The Salvadoran mother and her daughter ended up at a migrant shelter called the Leona Vicario Integration Center. It opened last summer to house asylum seekers in MPP as they wait for their U.S. court dates, and is run by the Mexican government. The shelter also opened its doors to the Guatemalan mother and children who were dropped on the Santa Fe bridge in the middle of the night.
Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney in El Paso, said the CDC order has led to extreme desperation.
“People who have already fled their homes and feel like they can’t go back — that only death awaits them if they were to go home — they’re really stuck,” Levy said, in a dangerous city where migrants are often the target of violence.
Levy said families with small children are taking riskier, more dangerous routes in an attempt to cross the border undetected, which is different than what she saw in the past. Previously, she said, families would cross in more open areas and turn themselves in to immigration officials.
“We have people who see no hope on the horizon,” Levy said. “They hear no hope about when the border might open up, what date things will change, when they can put their name on the asylum waiting list (at a port of entry). And so they’re driven to make really drastic choices to try and protect their lives and the lives of their children.”
A small apartment on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande is not where a 23-year-old Honduran mother thought she’d end up after fleeing her home country last year.
She agreed to speak with Texas Public Radio if her name was omitted from this story.
The mother said members of MS13, a street gang, started pressuring her husband to join and help sell drugs and threatened the family if he didn’t, so they left Honduras to seek asylum in the U.S.
In late March, the mother — who was pregnant and near her due date at the time — her husband and young son made it across the Rio Grande into South Texas. They were detained and taken to a Border Patrol facility.
“Inside, that’s when I started to get stomach pains,” she said.
Border officials took her to a local hospital in the Rio Grande Valley where she had her baby girl. She showed TPR paperwork from the hospital that confirmed she delivered her baby there just after 11 a.m.
But a day after she had her baby, she and the newborn were brought back to the border patrol facility. She thought they’d be able to join someone they knew who was living in the U.S.
Instead, a few days later, they were taken to an international bridge.
“They told us it was because of COVID that they weren’t letting people cross and that they were returning them,” she said. “Even though the baby was born over there, that wasn’t their problem, they told us.”
The Honduran mother said she told border officials they were doing something illegal because her baby was born in America.
“But none of that mattered to them,” she said.
She said she begged them to please at least let her and her baby stay because she’d just given birth and they had nowhere to go in Mexico. The mother said U.S. officials dropped them off at the international bridge, but then Mexican immigration officials showed up and told them to leave.
Because of COVID-19, local shelters weren’t taking people in, so that night, she said, her family slept in a park.
Karla Vargas with the Texas Civil Rights Project said if Title 42 expulsions weren’t happening and if the federal government followed immigration law, the Department of Homeland Security could have exercised its discretion and released the woman’s family into the U.S. so they can wait for an immigration proceeding.
“The child is a U.S. citizen, so nothing should happen to the child in terms of immigration because the child was born here and the mother should be allowed the opportunity to continue her immigration case as required by law,” she said. “Right now the government isn’t necessarily giving children or adults anything, but what the government is doing is preventing these individuals from exercising the right that they have under the law.”
The Honduran mother said eventually — after two nights of sleeping in a park — she got in touch with an advocate who connected them to a local nun who helped them find this apartment in Mexico.
Now, they’re not sure what’s next because they don’t have any legal representation. Her husband said they still hope to get their kids into the U.S. and seek asylum.
“We don’t feel safe in Mexico,” he said. “It’s dangerous where we’re staying.”
In the meantime he got a job locally to pay the rent while the family waits for the border to reopen.
CBP officials said in a statement, “By law, U.S. Citizens cannot be deported or expelled. The mother is not a U.S. citizen. As a matter of policy, CBP does not comment on pending litigation. However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”
The mother isn’t currently involved in any lawsuits against the federal government.
Last May, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported an increase of Mexican nationals crossing the border into the U.S. between March and May, raising concerns of COVID-19 spread into the United States. This prompted a collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security and the Government of Mexico to expel migrants through repatriation flights to Mexico City.
Adán Jacome León, a volunteer with the activist group Deportados Unidos en la Lucha, waits at the Mexico City International airport to welcome expelled Mexican migrants on Thursdays and Fridays. Four flights operated by ICE Air arrive weekly from San Diego, California or Brownsville, Texas. Jacome said migrants on board told him they’ve crossed at different points along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“They are expulsions,” Jacome said. “There are also some (migrants) that have been detained for three, four months, and then there are others that are being detained because of COVID and expelled right away.”
Some of the passengers aboard the flights were deportees, who were detained for months. Others were recently expelled migrants who only spent two or three days detained in the U.S.
According to Jacome, those who wore green coated paper bracelets were in detention for a while.
“Those with bracelets are the ones that have been detained for one or two months,” Jacome said. “Those without, might have been detained the day before yesterday.”
He added this is a way to discourage migrants from crossing the border again because if the migrants are from far away cities, they’re now deep in Mexico City, a 14-hour drive from the U.S. So it’s now especially hard for them to go back north to the U.S.-Mexico border.
However, some do go back right after landing, because Mexico’s National Migration Institute pays for their bus tickets to wherever they say is their destination.
If Jacome is right about the flights, the discouragement is working, at least with the man at the bus station. He got a ticket to go back to his hometown in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. He said he left for the U.S. to find a better life. That was his first time trying to cross the border, but he said he won’t again try any time soon because it’s too difficult to cross right now.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was difficult for asylum seekers and immigrants to make entry into the U.S.
Officials will likely continue to use public health laws — under the guise of safety — to turn away asylum seekers who want the same thing. Safety.
Editor’s Note: Some interviews in this story were conducted in Spanish and translated to English.
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.