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Since Joe Biden was inaugurated, he’s announced a bunch of rollbacks of Trump-era immigration policy, including the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as “Remain in Mexico.” A few locations along the border have now begun processing the thousands of people seeking asylum in the United States. On the ground, though, many families are still waiting out asylum claims in Mexico. That’s because one thing Biden hasn’t rolled back is Title 42, a Trump-era provision that uses the pandemic as a justification for denying entry even to asylum-seekers. This means that even now, many migrants that make it to the U.S. get expelled to Mexican border towns, where they’re vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping, and worse. Meanwhile, more and more desperate parents are opting to send their children into the United States, alone. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says the number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico is the highest it has been in 20 years, leading to conservative fearmongering about a supposed “surge” at the border. But what is actually happening near the Rio Grande, and how is Biden’s promise of more “humane” treatment of immigrants holding up? To find out, I spoke with BuzzFeed News immigration reporter Adolfo Flores on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Grabar: Most of the immigrants in border towns are waiting to have their day in court. However, once they make it there, they find themselves in makeshift asylum courts, set up in tents along the border, speaking to judges on video.
Adolfo Flores: When you sit in the courtroom, you see how unprepared people are to make their case. They didn’t understand the process. The first hearing is usually a lot of administrative stuff. People would start talking about their case and the judge would be like, no, this is not the time for that. They would have to fill out this form, get it translated, and then come back. That was devastating because many people thought, “I just have to wait three months in this city. That’s really dangerous. But once I get to the court, I can tell the judge what happened to me and then they’ll give me asylum.” But that’s not what’s happening. People would have multiple hearings, and it was really hard for people to keep going.
They don’t have lawyers.
A lot of them don’t, because there are not many attorneys willing to go across the border and work with people. Even if you could afford an attorney, which most people couldn’t, who among them would fly down and meet you at the tent courts?
And, unlike single adults and families, unaccompanied minors are taken in by Customs and Border Protection to start the process of being admitted to the U.S.
That was something I first saw back in 2019, where parents were calculating their odds and realizing: “We’re living in tents, in some cases out in the street. We keep going to these hearings. I see people before me go in and they all appear to lose. So if I lose, we’re all going to have to go back home.” Then they discovered that if they sent their kids across alone, they would be treated as unaccompanied minors. You have to consider the dangers they were in. You had all these factors sort of weighing in on them, but particularly the danger—I would say a lot of parents were just scared of the danger in Mexico and back home.
The decision to move is more informed by the conditions back home—poverty, violence, or climate change—and the messaging they get from smugglers and their friends and family. When you look at the numbers, they have been increasing since spring of 2020—this surge that we’re seeing has been happening since before Biden took office. What’s different now, and has been different for at least a few months, is that the U.S. is processing unaccompanied minors, and they’re having a hard time keeping up with that demand. You have a lot of kids at the camp that are going into Border Patrol facilities, and they can’t move them out fast enough.
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When an unaccompanied minor crosses the border, they get taken into custody by Customs and Border Protection. Within 72 hours, they’re sent to a shelter run by the Department of Health and Human Services. And then, in an ideal world, a family member applies to be their sponsor, gets vetted, and takes the child in. In reality, it’s almost always more complicated, and slower. CBP’s emergency intake sites are overcrowded and unprepared for long-term stays. Kids aren’t being transferred to HHS shelters fast enough. And the process of vetting sponsors can drag on for a long time. In the meantime, those CBP shelters keep filling up.
HHS had decreased their shelter-space capacity to about 50 percent because of the pandemic. So it was really hard for them to build up that bed space again, even after the CDC allowed them open up at a much larger scale. But it’s not like flipping a switch. It takes a long time to build up this bed space. A senior administration official said it could take months. So that’s not really going to help with the current situation.
So what is the current situation? What do you hear from the kids?
We haven’t been able to directly talk to any of the kids. That’s actually something we’ve been rtrying to chase down right now. But I’ve talked to families who are trying to get kids out, as well as advocates, and they’re all frustrated with how long it takes and the conditions that they’re being held in. In Donna, Texas, there’s this big tent facility and it’s over capacity. These kids are housed in these crowded “pods,” and a lot of the kids told attorneys who went down there to interview them that they hadn’t been able to make a phone call—that they were told you won’t make a phone call until you’re about to leave, and they don’t know when that is. It’s really hard for these kids who crossed alone or were separated from a family member, and now they’re just like: “How long will I be here? I can’t call anyone. I can’t go out. And it’s crowded.”
How long are they there?
I heard from one attorney some of the kids they spoke to had been there for about seven or eight days, which is beyond the limit that CBP can hold unaccompanied children.
Do you think that the circumstances for these children have improved since the Trump administration? The “Remain in Mexico” program was something Biden said he was going to do away with and publicly said was “over” several weeks ago. But it sounds like it’s not really over for a lot of people.
Some of the people in the program are still in limbo, even though the Biden administration said that he would undo it. He very publicly announced that the program was over, but it’s still going to take time. Before the U.S. was processing unaccompanied immigrant minors, they were being sent back to Mexico or to their home countries to very dangerous situations. They were almost literally being handed over to cartels in some cases. I’ve previously spoken to kids who were kidnapped alongside their parents, who saw their moms get sexually assaulted or beaten. I think it’s important to note that that was happening before these kids were being processed.
Some advocates are taking the Biden administration to task and saying, “You need to have a better system for dealing with unaccompanied minors, because this is not the first or the second time that we have seen a spike like this.” The U.S. government appears to be caught off guard. There should be better way of sort of processing these children so they’re not stuck in these camps.
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