By Alicia A. Caldwell
MEXICALI, Mexico -- Thousands of migrant families who enter the
U.S. illegally every week and request asylum are freely released in
border towns. Thousands more are turned back to Mexico.
Which group they fall into is often not a matter of policy --
President Biden has said the U.S. is sending most migrant
families back across the border, but the treatment of parents with
children depends on capacity at holding facilities and shelters on
any given day. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs
Enforcement facilities regularly reach their Covid-19
reduced-capacity limits, while Mexican states routinely block the
U.S. from returning families when their own shelters are full, the
Biden administration has said.
When that happens, the migrant families are typically released
in Texas, Arizona or California, after which they often travel
elsewhere to stay with relatives or friends. Some are given
instructions to check in with immigration authorities soon after
they arrive at their destination, which helps the government keep
track of them during an asylum process that can take years.
Others are given only a receipt of their arrest and permission
to move on into the interior of the country, according to Customs
and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol. Those
families are asked to contact immigration authorities after they
reach their final destination, but aren't given a report date, CBP
Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border
Initiative, a binational aid group in Nogales, Ariz., said that
which families are being sent back where appears arbitrary. "It
doesn't seem to have rhyme or reason," Ms. Williams said.
A CBP spokesman said decisions about which families are sent
back to Mexico or allowed to proceed into the U.S. and apply for
asylum were on a "case-by-case basis," based on factors including
Covid-19 protocols, holding capacity, Mexican law and migrants'
The disparate treatment of migrant families reflects the growing
chaos as authorities on both sides of the border try to cope with a
more than 12-fold increase between December and March in the number
of people traveling in families illegally entering the U.S. Nearly
53,000 people traveling in families were arrested at the border in
March, according to CBP arrest data, up from about 4,000 in
In March, just over 17,000 of those migrants were sent back to
Mexico, while about 35,500 people were allowed to stay in the
Most come from the Central American countries where gang
violence is high and poverty and hunger have been exacerbated by
the pandemic and hurricanes. Some migrants have said they are
headed to the U.S. in hopes the Biden administration will be more
welcoming than the Trump administration.
Flor Maria Reyes, 23 years old, and her 3-year-old daughter
traveled from El Salvador to Mexico last month and crossed the Rio
Grande into Texas on a raft. They were arrested, and three days
later -- before they could request asylum -- they were flown to
California and sent back to Mexico. A public-health rule
implemented under former President Donald Trump during the pandemic
last year known as Title 42 allows the government to expel migrants
before they ask for asylum.
"They didn't ask us any questions and we couldn't tell them
anything," Ms. Reyes said in an interview at a border-aid agency,
Border Kindness, in Mexicali, across the border from
Two weeks later, a family of four from Venezuela crossed the
border illegally near Yuma, Ariz.
Nelson, Lissette and their son Daniel, 16, were released to the
Casa Alitas Welcome Center, a shelter in Tucson. Their 19-year-old
son was treated as a single adult and was taken to an
immigration-detention center in central Arizona.
The family members said they decided to make the trip now in
part because they believed they would be allowed to seek asylum
under the Biden administration. They plan to formally ask the U.S.
government for protection once they settle in Miami.
"President Biden said they don't separate families," Lissette
said, as she fought back tears describing her worry for her jailed
CBP has said the agency doesn't comment on specific cases.
Mr. Biden has said his administration was working with Mexican
officials to increase the number of families sent back across the
border amid the pandemic. "We're sending back the most of the
families that are coming. We're trying to work out now, with
Mexico, their willingness to take more of those families back," he
said at a press conference last month.
Border agents say they often have no choice but to quickly
release families into the U.S. when American detention facilities
are overcrowded with families and unaccompanied children and
Mexican shelters are also at capacity. A Mexican law passed last
year requires that returned migrant families be housed in
humanitarian shelters, and when those shelters are full, Mexican
authorities routinely block returns.
Single adults, who made up a little over two-thirds of the
nearly 100,000 migrants arrested at the border in February, are
typically turned back to Mexico within hours of their arrest.
CBP is working to put up more temporary tents to process and
temporarily hold migrant families at the border, and Immigration
and Customs Enforcement has signed a contract to temporarily house
some migrant families in hotel rooms where they will be screened
for Covid-19 and other medical issues.
The release of migrant families is straining some border
Last month, the mayor of Gila Bend, Ariz., a town of "1,917
friendly people and five old cars" according to a welcome sign,
declared a state of emergency after more than a dozen migrants were
dropped off by border agents at a park.
"We have nothing here, we have no transportation, we don't have
a shelter" or migrant aid groups, said Mayor Chris Riggs. "People
want to help, but...it's taxing our resources too much."
With no other options available, Mr. Riggs said he, his wife and
two volunteers borrowed a pair of vans and drove the stranded
families to a shelter in Phoenix.
Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at Alicia.Caldwell@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 08, 2021 12:54 ET (16:54 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.