Number of Immigrant Families Illegally Crossing U.S. Border Rises to Pre-Covid-19 Levels

Number of Immigrant Families Illegally Crossing U.S. Border Rises to Pre-Covid-19 Levels

Originally Published in The Wall Street Journal

Alicia Caldwell - February 18, 2021

Some migrants say they are coming in anticipation of less harsh treatment under the Biden administration

DEL RIO, Texas—Throughout the pandemic, this border city’s Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition has typically assisted about 25 migrants a week who enter the U.S. illegally with their families and seek asylum.

In the last week of January, 341 migrants passed through its center, quickly overtaxing the organization’s resources and leaving it nearly out of supplies, said its director of operations, Tiffany Burrow. Del Rio briefly turned its civic center into an emergency shelter last month to help 50 people who had to wait overnight for buses to depart the border city.

Federal authorities and aid groups say the number of families illegally crossing into the U.S. and being rapidly released from immigration custody and dropped off in border towns is rising fast. Local officials and aid groups say they haven’t seen such large releases of migrants since 2019, when U.S. border officials were overwhelmed by migrant families seeking asylum.

In January, U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested 7,260 people traveling as families, compared with about 4,500 in December. The last time so many migrant families were arrested was in December 2019.

Some of the illegal border crossers say they are coming in anticipation of less harsh treatment by the Biden administration than under President Donald Trump.

Dennis Chaveco Velazquez and Diana Cruz Batan left Cuba in late 2019, while Ms. Cruz was pregnant. They spent 14 months in Ciudad Acuña, a Mexican city across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, waiting for a change in Mr. Trump’s policy of turning away most asylum seekers.

In early February the couple entered the U.S. illegally with their 9-month-old daughter, Isabella, and were released in Del Rio last week along with eight other migrants, all from Haiti.

“We came now in part because of the law change,” Mr. Chaveco said, describing the family’s decision to cross the border last week. “It seemed like there is more tolerance.”

U.S. immigration laws haven’t changed in recent weeks, though President Biden has pledged to reverse course from many of his predecessor’s policies and to provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants already living in the country without legal authorization.

The Biden administration said last week it would begin letting some of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers waiting in Mexico into the U.S. as the first step in a phaseout of Mr. Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols, which made most asylum seekers wait in Mexico for their claims to be decided.

Customs and Border Protection officials said the recent rise in crossing is filling up some of their facilities, which are operating at reduced capacity because of the pandemic. In addition, a new Mexican law makes it more difficult for the U.S. government to quickly send back some migrant families, as had been common practice by the Trump administration during the pandemic.

When government facilities are full, officials typically release migrant families to aid organizations. The groups help the families make their way into the interior of the U.S., often to reunite with relatives or friends, while they wait for their asylum claims to be adjudicated, a process that often takes years because of backlogs in courts.

In total, more than 75,000 people were arrested crossing the border illegally in January, the most in any January in more than a decade. The majority were single adults, who unlike families and unaccompanied children can be quickly returned to Mexico.

Many families can’t be sent back because a recently passed Mexican law mandates that returning migrant families be housed in government shelters. Rising numbers have filled many shelters in Mexico to capacity, prompting Mexican officials to not accept more families.

CBP recently opened a 160,000-square-foot tent complex along the border in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley to process and house the growing number of new migrants.

Dana Graber, director of the Mexico mission of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, said her group is seeing a rise in migrants traveling north and believes the region may be headed toward another migration crisis. In Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, an IOM-sponsored hotel housing migrants during the pandemic has been at capacity for the past few weeks.

The pandemic has posed new challenges for releasing migrants into the U.S.

In San Diego, migrants are quarantined in local hotels by county health officials for 10 days after their release, as directed by state law, said Kate Clark, senior director of immigration services for Jewish Family Service, an aid group in the city.

Texas has no quarantine rules for anyone entering the state. In the Rio Grande Valley, aid groups were given thousands of test kits by the state and are screening migrants for Covid-19 before they come into shelters or board buses out of town, local officials said.

Del Rio doesn’t have Covid-19 testing or any way to help migrants who may be infected to quarantine, said Shon Young, Val Verde’s president.

On Wednesday, Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano posted a video on YouTube asking President Biden to temporarily halt the release of migrants in the city due to the crisis caused by cold weather and power shutoffs in Texas.

Customs and Border Protection doesn’t test migrants before they are released but will take a migrant to a local hospital if he or she is showing symptoms of Covid-19 or other illness. Aid groups such as the one in Del Rio advise people to quarantine if they believe they may have Covid-19, but lack the resources to pay for hotels or other accommodations.

José de Córdoba and Juan Montes contributed to this article.

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