Mexican Regulation Halts U.S. From Turning Again Some Migrant Households

WASHINGTON – A Mexican law prevented the United States from quickly turning away immigrant families on one of the busiest sections of the southwest border and forced agents to resume releasing families into the country, according to three government officials from Biden.

The Trump administration began rejecting migrants entering the US in March, citing the coronavirus threat, and the emergency rule effectively sealed the border from asylum seekers. Due to a law that Mexico passed in November banning the detention of immigrant children and families, the country stopped accepting such families from South Texas, an area normally prone to illegal crossings.

The recent postponement has alerted Homeland Security officials and poses an immediate challenge to the Biden government. Homeland Security officials said the emergency rule was necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in detention centers along the border, even if it prevented vulnerable families from hearing their asylum applications. In recent weeks, increasing numbers of families have been held in such facilities in the Rio Grande Valley and Del Rio, Texas.

Stephanie Malin, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, said due to pandemic precautions and social distancing guidelines, some facilities have reached full “safe holding capacity”.

“CBP takes the safety and well-being of its workforce and those they encounter very seriously and we are taking even more precautions because of Covid-19,” said Ms. Malin. “As always, the number of people crossing the border continues to fluctuate and we are adjusting accordingly.” She said the agency is working with organizations in the community to publicize migrants.

The United States has turned back more than 390,000 migrants to Mexico or their home countries since March. The scheme reduced the number of migrants detained on the U.S. side of the border, but also left Central American families in trouble when they learned that their children had been brought to Mexico, in violation of international treaties. And while politics was a crucial part of the Trump administration’s attempts to close the border to migrants, the rule also had the unintended effect of giving migrants more chances of illegal entry.

Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 73,000 crossings in December, an increase from more than 40,000 in July. Agents arrested more than 40,000 migrants in December 2019.

Mexican law, which went into effect in January, doesn’t apply to the entire border. American border officials still reject single adults, and so do families in places like Arizona, officials said. It is unclear how the law will affect other parts of the border.

A State Department spokesman in Mexico declined to comment on whether it had stopped accepting migrant families, saying only that the United States continued to have the pandemic emergency rule.

However, Biden’s administration was unable to return migrant families to Reynosa, Mexico, a change first reported by the Washington Post. The relocation has raised concerns among Customs and Border Protection about a possible increase in family crossings into the neighboring Rio Grande Valley. Border crossings in recent years have been fueled mainly by Central American families fleeing persecution, violence and poverty.

The Department of Homeland Security is currently building a tent complex in Donna, Texas, to house migrants. However, an administrative official said this was not related to the law in Mexico. Customs and Border Guard said in November it would close the main McAllen detention center for renovations.

President Biden campaigned for asylum restoration on the southwestern border and this week signed an executive order directing the government to roll back President Donald J. Trump’s restrictive policies.

The new government has not publicly announced when the pandemic emergency rule will be lifted. After a federal judge in the District of Columbia lifted a blockade on the rule that prevented the United States from turning away unaccompanied migrant children, the White House said it would use its own discretion to decide when to apply the policy.

Mr Biden said in December that his administration would take a cautious approach to reversing Trump-era policies to avoid a surge on the border.

His immigration plan was to rely more on programs that migrants follow after their release to the United States to ensure they appear before immigration tribunals, rather than on their detention.

Mexico, for its part, praised the fact that it had imposed restrictions on those detained.

“Mexico is taking a decisive step towards ending child detention and we are encouraged by this promising development,” said Gillian Triggs, deputy high commissioner for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

While top Trump administration officials argued their emergency rule was just an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Mr Trump’s White House attempted to use the policy to advance its goals of curbing illegal immigration.

Kirk Semple contributed to coverage from Mexico City.

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