The Washington Post

A crimp in Biden’s border plan

Mexico says it lacks space to take in migrant families the U.S. expected to expel

- BY MARY BETH SHERIDAN

ciudad juárez, mexico — The message popped up on Pastor Juan Fierro’s phone one recent afternoon. U.S. border agents had expelled another group of Central American families to this Mexican city. Could someone take them in?

Fierro, an evangelica­l minister, was startled by the request. During most of the pandemic, officials in Juárez had sent newly arrived migrants to a quarantine center for 14 days. Suddenly it was full. “There was no place to take care of these people,” Fierro said. So his staff at the Good Samaritan shelter hauled bunk beds into an empty room and penned it in with battered wooden benches. Within days, the rudimentar­y “quarantine” center held 23 women and children.

President Biden hoped to put the brakes on a surge of U.s.-bound Central American families by relying on a Trump-era policy to return them to Mexico. But increasing­ly, this country is straining to cope with the influx. Mexico is now limiting the number of families it will allow back. That’s forced the U.S. government to accept most of them, as their numbers soar: About 53,000 members of family units were taken into custody in March, compared with 7,300 in January.

Mexico’s pushback has created a new obstacle as the Biden administra­tion struggles to deal with what could be the biggest wave of migrants at the U.S. southern border in 20 years. Pressured by President Donald Trump, Mexico became a crucial buffer zone between Central America and the United States. Its authoritie­s deported tens of thousands of U.s.-bound migrants and took back asylum seekers to await their U.S. court dates. As the coronaviru­s pandemic descended on both countries last year, the Trump administra­tion adopted one of the most restrictiv­e border policies ever, using a health measure called Title 42 to expel nearly all Central American migrants and asylum seekers to Mexico.

The Biden administra­tion continued to use that rule for families and solo adults, while exempting unaccompan­ied children. Now U.S. officials fear Mexico’s refusal to go along with the family expulsions will have a cascade effect. As more Central Americans succeed in entering the U.S. immigratio­n system, their relatives and neighbors back home are deciding to make the journey.

They’re people like Ingrid Posas, 33, who left Honduras in midFebruar­y after seeing Facebook posts of friends who had made it into the United States.

“We heard they were letting families in. That’s why I came,” she said, sitting with her 4-year-old daughter on a bench at the Good Samaritan center’s quarantine site, under a curtain of laundry hanging from clotheslin­es.

Mexican authoritie­s say their abrupt refusal to accept most families follows a new law that bars children from being detained in adult migration facilities. It sailed through Mexico’s Congress at the end of last year, receiving little press attention.

U.N. agencies and human rights activists had long pressed for such legislatio­n. But the government has few shelters for children in northern Mexico. So just weeks after the law took effect in January, Mexican authoritie­s said they had no more room for Central American families expelled from the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the busiest crossing point.

“It certainly snuck up on us,” said a senior Biden administra­tion official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic issues.

Administra­tion officials then asked if those families could be flown to other parts of the border and expelled. Mexican authoritie­s “agreed to a limited number,” the senior official said.

In Juárez, that’s been set at 100 family members each day, according to local officials and activists. Even that number is taxing resources in this industrial city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Tex. More than 1,700 migrants and asylum seekers have filled Juárez’s 20 shelters, sleeping in bunk beds in dorm-style rooms or on mattresses on the floor. That’s more than during the last migration peak in the summer of 2019. But now there’s a pandemic. And the religious and civic organizati­ons that run most of the shelters have little access to coronaviru­s tests.

“When they ask me, Father, can you care for these 80 or 120 people — who will guarantee they don’t have covid?” asked the Rev. Javier Calvillo, the Catholic priest who runs Casa del Migrante, one of the largest shelters. The pink-brick complex already weathered one outbreak last fall. Fifteen of his staff and three dozen migrants were infected. He’s now refusing to receive some of the families.

Across town, the Rev. Hector Trejo, an Episcopali­an priest, worries about how many people he can accommodat­e during the pandemic. He has set a 60-person limit at his shelter at Espiritu Santo church, half the usual capacity. In February, though, local authoritie­s called to say 100 Haitians had just been expelled to Juárez. Could he take half of them?

“At that moment I had 53 people,” he said. “We broke our rules, by necessity.” Three more times last month, the number of migrants at the shelter swelled to more than 100.

Critics say the lack of shelter space is only part of the problem. The Mexican government, they suggest, is using the new law as an excuse to avoid doing the Biden administra­tion’s bidding — or to obtain something in return, such as coronaviru­s vaccines.

“Everyone knows that Mexican laws are meaningles­s if the federal government doesn’t want to respect them,” said former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, a frequent critic of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Mexican authoritie­s could easily comply with the new law by transformi­ng unused schools into makeshift centers for migrant families, he said. But the federal government has shown no desire to do so, or to increase the budget for new shelters.

That’s left local officials scrambling. In Juárez, they’ve worked with internatio­nal organizati­ons and the federal government to set up a shelter in a gym where as many as 500 arriving migrants can be quarantine­d and tested for the coronaviru­s. It significan­tly expanded a quarantine system that until recently had centered on a hotel with capacity for 108 people managed by the Internatio­nal Organizati­on for Migration. But within days of opening last week, the municipal shelter held more than 150 people, raising concerns it could fill up, too.

Biden said last month that he was negotiatin­g with López Obrador about the Central American families reaching the U.S. border. “They should all be going back,” he declared. U.S. officials say they’ve asked the Mexican government to delay implementa­tion of the new law. So far, though, that hasn’t happened. In February, the United

States returned about 40 percent of the families who crossed the border, but as traffic has surged, the proportion has dropped to 10 to 20 percent.

Asked for comment, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said the country “receives certain immigrants depending on institutio­nal capacities” and in compliance with domestic laws. López Obrador has criticized the Biden administra­tion for not investing more in developmen­t projects in southern Mexico and Central America to prevent citizens from leaving. “We are ready to do our part and work together in fighting human traffickin­g and protecting human rights, especially those of children,” he tweeted on Wednesday after a phone call with Vice President Harris.

U.S. officials are also scrambling to house migrant families and unaccompan­ied children on the American side of the border. Many families are being released with orders to appear in immigratio­n court, but their cases could drag on for months or years. That’s motivating more people in Central America to make the journey.

Xeni, a 25-year-old Honduran, left her home in the province of Comayagua in mid-march. She was hoping to reunite with her husband, who had migrated to Florida in 2019. “Many people from my town had crossed” the U.S. border in recent weeks, she said. She traveled by raft across the Rio Grande from the Mexican city of Reynosa to Mcallen, Tex., with her small son and daughter. They waded ashore in what she remembers as a brief moment of jubilation.

“Call Daddy,” her 6-year-old son Wilson told her. “Tell him to come get us.”

But Xeni was one of the unlucky ones. U.S. border agents took her and the children into custody and put them on a plane. She said the agents told her the family was being taken to a different city for processing. When they landed in El Paso, they were bused to a bridge leading into Juárez. On a recent evening, she sat at the cafeteria at a migrant shelter, cradling her 3year-old daughter, who repeatedly coughed.

“We were all tricked,” Xeni said, speaking on the condition her last name wasn’t used for fear of problems with the U.S. immigratio­n system.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that migrants from the Rio Grande Valley were being sent to three other border crossings — Laredo, Tex., San Diego and El Paso — so they could be processed “as safely and expeditiou­sly as possible.” It added: “The border is not open” b coronaviru­s restrictio­ns.

Activists worry that migrants like Xeni have no legal status — neither immigratio­n court appointmen­ts in the United States, nor work permits in Mexico. “This is provoking chaos on the border,” Fierro said.

The situation could become more complicate­d if the Title 42 expulsions end. Biden administra­tion officials have said the policy is under review; but as the pandemic wanes, it will eventually become moot. The administra­tion has terminated the Migrant Protection Protocols, a Trump-era program that required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their court dates. It hasn’t yet announced a new system to process those arriving at the border.

Many migrants say they can’t return home, because they fled violence or spent all their money on the journey. Some are traveling to other border points to cross, or instructin­g their children to walk into the United States alone, knowing the Biden administra­tion isn’t expelling unaccompan­ied minors.

Xeni said she can’t go back to Honduras because her home was damaged by two devastatin­g hurricanes in November. And she’s desperate to give her children a better life. So desperate, she’s considerin­g a drastic step.

“The only option I have is to send the kids over the bridge,” she said.

 ?? MICHAEL Robinson Chavez/the WASHINGTON POST ?? Migrants, mostly from Central America, stay at the Good Samaritan shelter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, last month. The country is limiting the number of families it will allow back, forcing the United States to accept most of them.
MICHAEL Robinson Chavez/the WASHINGTON POST Migrants, mostly from Central America, stay at the Good Samaritan shelter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, last month. The country is limiting the number of families it will allow back, forcing the United States to accept most of them.
 ??  ?? TOP: Ingrid Posas, 33, hangs clothing to dry at the Good Samaritan shelter in Mexico. She left Honduras with her daughter in February after seeing Facebook posts of friends who had made it into the United States. ABOVE: A child stares out a door at the shelter.
TOP: Ingrid Posas, 33, hangs clothing to dry at the Good Samaritan shelter in Mexico. She left Honduras with her daughter in February after seeing Facebook posts of friends who had made it into the United States. ABOVE: A child stares out a door at the shelter.
 ?? PHOTOS BY MICHAEL ROBINSON CHAVEZ/THE WASHINGTON POST ??
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL ROBINSON CHAVEZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

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