Migrants and asylum seekers are seen after staying in one of the car lanes outside the San Ysidro border crossing port on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border in Tijuana on April 24, 2021. A group of migrants asked the US migration authorities to allow this to happen.They started their migration process and decided to stay at the crossing port to put pressure on a solution to their situation. Guillermo Arias / AFP via Getty Images Hide caption
Guillermo Arias / AFP via Getty Images
Guillermo Arias / AFP via Getty Images
The Biden government is making exceptions to a public health policy that has largely closed the border between the United States and Mexico to migrant traffic since last year because of the pandemic.
More and more migrants are receiving humanitarian exemptions as they are considered the most at risk, including families with young children and transgender people who have lived in dangerous conditions in Mexican border towns.
This is because the number of migrants arrested at the southern border exceeded 170,000 for the second consecutive month in April. The majority are still being turned away, but increasing numbers of single adults and families are allowed to seek asylum in the United States.
“We are working to streamline a system for identifying and lawfully processing vulnerable individuals that warrant humanitarian exemptions under the ordinance,” said Sarah Peck, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, in a statement to NPR, referring to the health ordinance that aims to do so to stop the spread of COVID -19.
“This humanitarian exemption process involves close coordination with international and non-governmental organizations in Mexico and COVID-19 testing before those identified through this process are allowed to enter the country,” Peck said.
However, migration experts and aid groups say the Biden administration has failed to explain how the system works, leading to widespread confusion in border communities about who is considered at risk.
“There are no clear criteria by which families are admitted,” said Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Institute for Migration Policy in Washington, DC.
The Biden government has not attempted to publicize this streamlined system of humanitarian exemptions from the health order. Instead, President Biden and senior officials have repeatedly urged Central American migrants not to make the dangerous journey north as the border remains largely closed.
Immigrant advocates say administrators are concerned about sparking another surge in migration.
The number of migrants arrested after crossing the southern border rose to a 20-year high in March and rose again slightly in April official numbers Published Tuesday.
Nonprofits and immigrant attorneys describe a patchwork of ways asylum seekers are now being admitted to the United States – after months of banned entry under the pandemic health ordinance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention known as Title 42.
Under an agreement, the Biden government is working with a consortium of non-governmental organizations to identify the most vulnerable migrants for entry into the US, according to two people familiar with the process.
This system began on a small scale in El Paso, Texas last week and is expected to be introduced across the southern border. Migrants are screened in Mexico before they present themselves to US customs and border protection officials at the ports of entry.
Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, a nonprofit in El Paso, Texas, says he heard migrants gain access by finding they are vulnerable in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the border. His organization offers temporary protection to migrants.
“What exactly are the criteria, who chooses them; I can’t tell you that,” said Garcia. “I just do not know.”
Under these exemptions from Title 42, groups of up to 50 people are allowed to drive from Juarez to El Paso almost daily, Garcia said. Most of the other migrants are still being expelled.
“Title 42 is still being enforced here in El Paso,” said Garcia.
Almost two-thirds of migrants crossing in families – about 32,500 people in April alone – and a growing percentage of single adults were allowed to apply for asylum in the US last month.
Many are allowed to enter because parts of Mexico are refusing to take back families with young children, government officials said.
It is unknown how many migrants were granted humanitarian exemptions in April. However, the number of migrants who were allowed to cross at the ports of entry after the presentation instead of crossing illegally has more than doubled to almost 1,800.
Transgender migrants were also recently allowed to pass through ports of entry processed by U.S. immigration authorities and released for reunification with family members or sponsors while their asylum cases are being tried in an immigration court.
A transgender migrant home in Juarez is expected to close this week. Alexa Ponce, 25, had lived there for more than a year after arriving from El Salvador just before border pandemic restrictions went into effect in March.
She has planned to enter the United States on Wednesday with a group of seven other transgender women to apply for asylum.
“I feel an avalanche of emotions,” said Ponce, who dreams of going to college. “I’m very happy, but also nervous. I’m not sure how I will be. I want to work and lead a more dignified life than I could in my country.”
In San Diego, immigrant lawyers report that at least five immigrant families are granted humanitarian exemptions on a daily basis. Al Otro Lado, the Jewish Family Service and other non-governmental organizations have petitioned CBP to allow them entry into the United States
These groups visit the migrant camp just across the border in Tijuana, Mexico and local shelters to identify migrants who are particularly at risk.
They advise families who decide between waiting to cross a port of entry together and “self-segregation” by sending their children across the border alone. The Biden administration already grants entry to most of the unaccompanied migrant children.
They also accompany families who are allowed to cross the border. Last week, a case manager from the Tijuana-based legal aid group Al Otro Lado waited with several families in the port of entry and communicated with CBP agents.
One of the families – Valeria and her two children – has been stuck in Tijuana since leaving Michoacán, Mexico, last year, escaping domestic violence. She asked NPR not to use her full name because she is still concerned that the violence will follow her.
“I feel safe now because I’m on my way to be with my family,” she said before crossing the border. Her father and sister already live in the United States. “There is fear in Tijuana, but we are on our way to safety.”
The Biden government has come under fire from Republicans who attribute the recent surge in the number of migrants arriving at the border to President Biden’s decision to roll back some of his predecessor’s tough immigration policies.
But the White House is also under pressure from immigrant rights groups who say the government should do more to provide asylum for vulnerable migrants.
They are calling on the government to repeal Title 42 public health ordinance enacted last year under former President Trump and effectively close the southern border to asylum seekers.
“A process to immediately help vulnerable families is helpful, but not a substitute for a complete termination of Title 42 policies of the Trump administration,” said Lee Gelernt, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who oversaw the current order has challenged migrant families in court.
“The politics are illegal and inhumane,” said Gelernt.
The ACLU agreed to postpone its lawsuit in February and, according to Gelernt, negotiated with the Biden administration about its own exceptional procedure. Since the end of March, the ACLU has referred up to 35 vulnerable families per day to travel to the United States
But the government defends the Trump-era use of public health policy, saying it is up to the CDC to repeal it.
“We continue to evict single adults and families under Title 42,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, Minister for Homeland Security an interview with All Things Considered by NPR last week. “This is the province of the CDC to assess public health needs in relation to the pandemic.”
Mayorkas tried to downplay the scope of the exemptions granted by the administration.
“We are making exceptions for discreet humanitarian reasons to address certain vulnerabilities, and we’ve been doing that from the start,” he told NPR.
“The border is not open,” he said.