MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - U.S. officials in Texas are releasing an increasing number of Central American migrant families from custody as local authorities in Mexico have baulked at taking them back and border patrol facilities risk becoming overcrowded.
Two shelter managers told Reuters the U.S. Border Patrol began dropping off families last week at shelters in Laredo and Brownsville along the stretch of border with Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, the busiest region for illegal immigration into the United States.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said the Border Patrol has sent around 50 to 80 families to her shelter daily since Jan. 27, rising to 150 families on Wednesday. Most remain only briefly at the shelters before connecting with relatives or friends elsewhere in the United States, she said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed some migrants were being released into the United States to await immigration hearings, saying some holding facilities were at maximum safe capacity. A CBP source cited COVID-19 and a change in Mexican law among factors that “have forced us to adapt.”
Tamaulipas recently stopped accepting Central American families with children under the age of six expelled from Texas, a U.S. source said. If Mexico does not agree to take the migrants, U.S. authorities must either keep them in custody or free them until their immigration court hearings.
Mexico’s foreign ministry confirmed there had been “local” adjustments to policy, citing the implementation of a child protection law passed late last year. A senior Mexican official said the changes were “minor adjustments” and appeared to be limited to Tamaulipas.
If such changes were to be applied more broadly, U.S. officials fear it could fan already rising migration from Central America, as word spreads that not all families will be expelled.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to undo some harsh Trump-era rules without creating a rush on the border.
Since a U.S. pandemic-related rule called Title 42 was implemented in March last year, Mexico has agreed to allow the United States to turn around Central Americans caught crossing the border illegally, including families with children.
But in November, Mexico added new child protections to a migration law that means accompanied and unaccompanied minors sent back to Mexico should be placed in the care of the child service agency rather than immigration detention centers with adults.
The agency is underfunded and it is not immediately clear if the law will be widely implemented, or how it would affect migrant processing more broadly along the U.S. and Mexican border.
For now, the changes appeared to be narrow and not in place at other busy sections of the border for migration, such as El Paso and San Diego, where families are still being returned to Mexico, according to local shelter managers.
Biden signed an executive order on Feb 2. to review asylum processing at the U.S. border but his administration has said changes to the current system will take time.
With more migrant families arriving at the border, and some now being released into the United States, the Biden administration will have no “honeymoon period” to get new plans off the ground, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
“People are arriving, you can’t just stop everything while they create the new system,” she said. She said Mexican cooperation will be key to any new policy planning.
U.S. data shows that through December of this fiscal year, 5,175 families were apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities between Tamaulipas and Texas, more than anywhere else on the border, but less than the same period a year earlier.
Overall, border apprehension numbers have been rising, above 70,000 in recent months and expected to reach 80,000 in January.
Experts attribute the rise to economic hardship in Central America, battered by two major hurricanes and the pandemic, as well as expectations of relaxed migration policy under Biden.
Advocates working in Tamaulipas say the Matamoros camp of mainly asylum seekers across from Brownsville has increased to about 1,000 from 750 in December as migrants return from other parts of Mexico with the hope they will be allowed to cross.
Sister Pimentel welcomed the reduction in the number of families going back to Mexico. Tamaulipas, for example, has a record of violence against migrants, including a massacre of 19 people in January. A dozen state police have been charged with the crime.
“It is not a very humane response to send them to Mexico with all of the abuses they have to deal with. We have a better capacity to handle them,” she said.
Another Texas shelter manager, Mike Smith, director of The Holding Institute in Laredo, said families they had taken in recently reported that they had been given temperature checks for COVID-19 while in custody, but no tests for the coronavirus.
Tests carried out at his shelter had turned up three positive COVID-19 cases, he said.
The shelter has since run out of coronavirus tests and is attempting to socially distance migrants, Smith said.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Mimi Dwyer and Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles, Ted Hesson in Washington, Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City and Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Mexico; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Alistair Bell and Rosalba O’Brien
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