At border, U.S. vice president Harris shakes off Republican critics

By Nandita Bose

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) -Vice President Kamala Harris visited a border patrol facility near the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday, aiming to counter claims from Republicans she has been slow to visit the region as part of her role addressing the root causes of immigration.

The trip, her first to the border since becoming vice president five months ago, was announced on Wednesday and appeared to have been hastily put together days before a border visit by former President Donald Trump.

A White House official said Harris’s schedule was not dictated by what the Republican Trump does. “I can assure you we don’t take our cues from the former president,” the official said.

“I said back in March I was going to come to the border, so this is not a new plan,” Harris told reporters after landing in Texas. “Coming to the border … is about looking at the effects of what we have seen happening in Central America.”

Republicans have criticized President Joe Biden, her fellow Democrat, for rolling back restrictive Trump-era immigration policies even as migrant detentions at the U.S.-Mexico border have reached 20-year highs in recent months.

Immigration remains a hot-button issue for both parties. Democrats and pro-immigrant activists have pressed Biden to further scale back enforcement and ensure humane treatment of migrant children and families arriving at the border.

White House officials have for months said Harris’s efforts to stem immigration from Central America are focused on diplomacy and are distinct from the security issues at the border.

“The vice president’s trip to Guatemala and Mexico earlier this year was about the root causes, and this border visit is about the effects,” her spokesperson Symone Sanders, told reporters on Thursday. “Both trips will inform the administration’s root causes strategy.”

Harris, who visited the border as a senator and attorney general from California, was assailed by Republicans when she visited Mexico and Guatemala this month as part of her efforts to lower migration from the region into the United States.

During that trip, Harris said she would visit the border in the near future but was focused on “tangible results” and “opposed to grand gestures.”

Nonetheless, Republicans criticized Harris for choosing El Paso rather than the area they point to as a hot spot for increased border crossings.

“While it’s certainly positive that she is taking this step, I am disappointed that she is not going to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) – the very epicenter of this crisis,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf under Trump said in a statement.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, said many Republicans have embraced Trump’s hardline immigration policies as they gear up for U.S. congressional elections in 2022.

As such, they are unlikely to stop their criticism of Biden’s policies, even if Harris visits the border.

“They believe that is something that can win them seats in 2022, so of course they’re going to play it up,” she said. “They’re going to try to make it an issue.”

Harris was accompanied in El Paso by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Dick Durbin and Democratic Representative from Texas Veronica Escobar, who called the El Paso area the new “Ellis Island,” a reference to the famed area in New York Harbor that processed millions of immigrants as they entered the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Ted Hesson, additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Kieran Murray and Alistair Bell)

‘U.S. Welcome Patrol’: how some border agents are struggling with Biden’s policy shift

By Ted Hesson, Kristina Cooke and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Some U.S. border patrol agents are so frustrated with President Joe Biden’s more liberal border policies that they are considering early retirement, while other disgruntled colleagues are buying unofficial coins that say ‘U.S. Welcome Patrol.’

Interviews with a dozen current and former agents highlight growing dissatisfaction among some rank and file members of the agency over Biden’s swift reversal of some of former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies. Since Biden took office, border apprehensions have risen sharply.

Some of that frustration is coalescing into opposition to Biden’s pick to lead the border patrol’s parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The nominee is Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, who still needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The discontent was partly reflected in an unusual memo from the acting Border Patrol chief last month, who objected to a new directive to stop using the term ‘alien’ when referring to migrants, saying it would hurt agents’ morale.

The interviews provide an anecdotal snapshot of the mood within border patrol and, as such, do not represent the views of all agents. One agent who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity said “there are always going to be changes” between presidential administrations and that agents are “used to it.”

But any internal strife could complicate plans Magnus may have to implement and reshape border and asylum policy. Criticism from even a small number of agents could also bolster Republican efforts to use concerns over illegal immigration to rally supporters ahead of the 2022 congressional elections.

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union that represents three-quarters of the roughly 20,000 border patrol agents, sharply criticized Biden in a news conference with Republican senators on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. The union endorsed Trump in the 2020 election and still supports his restrictionist policies.

“I can confidently say that President Biden owns this crisis,” Judd said, referring to the recent spike in border crossers. “It is his fault.”

The 97-year-old border patrol agency has been whipsawed by policy changes under Republican and Democratic administrations that have required them to frequently modify their approach to migrants they encounter at the border.

But a number of the agents interviewed said they had never experienced such a dramatic pendulum swing.

Discontent in the ranks has already led some agents to consider early retirement, six of them said. Voluntary retirements within border patrol are set to outpace last year if they continue at the current rate, according to agency data.

Rosemarie Pepperdine, a border patrol agent working in Casa Grande, Arizona, is one of those who said she was considering taking early retirement.

“We have so many people coming across, and then we’re out there killing ourselves to catch them, rescue them or whatever it is, and then they’re being released,” she said. “Why even bother?”

Asked about the agents’ frustration, a Biden administration official said the president’s approach was rooted in solutions and effective management.

HOSPITAL ESCAPE

The opposition to Magnus from within the agency derives in part from an incident in 2017, when a Honduran migrant escaped from a Tucson hospital while a border agent was looking at his phone.

Magnus’ police department dispatched search teams and helicopters, police records show. After they determined the migrant had likely left the area, they called off the manhunt, according to Tucson’s assistant police chief, Kevin Hall.

The border patrol wanted to use a police station to set up a command post to aid the search. But that was rejected by police, who according to Hall felt that was unnecessary because the border patrol had their own facilities. He said police also wanted to avoid attracting pro-immigrant protesters who were congregating at the hospital.

Border patrol union officials were outraged, writing on Facebook at the time that Magnus’ police department “put politics over rule of law and oath of office.”

Magnus “refused to work with the agency that he’s going to be overseeing,” Judd, the union president, said in an interview with Reuters. “That alone, in my opinion, should be disqualification.”

Hall said he felt the police department had done everything they could to find the man. “We were all a bit surprised,” Hall said of the union’s outrage about the 2017 incident, “because the facts as we saw them were not exactly aligning with the facts as they saw them.”

Magnus declined to comment for this story.

The son of an immigrant father from Norway, Magnus, 60, has not publicly spoken about what his plan would be for CBP.

His backers in police and policy circles say he is a strong supporter of his employees and is open to a wide range of views.

Claudia Jasso, chief development officer at the Tucson-based nonprofit Amistades, said one of the first things Magnus did as head of the city’s police department was to meet with the Latino community to listen to their concerns. “He was humble and asked a lot of questions,” she said.

Gil Kerlikowske, who was CBP commissioner for three years under former President Barack Obama, said there are people within the agency who disagree with the politically outspoken union but who may not speak out.

If Magnus is confirmed to head CBP, Kerlikowske said, “empathy and compassion will be a standard.”

Many immigration advocates have been deeply critical of border patrol and say it is time for reform.

In 2019, the agency came under fire when the nonprofit news site ProPublica revealed a private Facebook group in which border patrol agents aired racist and misogynistic views. Then-acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said at the time that the posts did not reflect the views of the agency’s employees.

‘U.S. WELCOME PATROL’

Border apprehensions have been rising since Biden took office in January, reaching about 173,000 in April – the highest monthly level in more than 20 years.

The Biden administration initially struggled to process the border crossers fast enough, resulting in thousands of children being stuck in overcrowded border stations and forcing some agents to take on caretaker roles instead of patrolling for drugs and smugglers.

While the administration made changes that helped empty out the crowded stations, agents said they and their colleagues remain frustrated that many families are being released into the United States to pursue asylum cases, even as a Trump-era policy of quick expulsions at the border during the pandemic is still in place.

In at least one part of the southern border, some agents have started calling Biden ‘Let ‘Em Go Joe,’ according to a border patrol agent who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Gil Maza, a former agent who retired in March, runs a website selling an unofficial coin that refashions the U.S. Border Patrol logo to read ‘U.S. Welcome Patrol.’ Maza said he had sold 78 of the coins in four days to current and former agents.

“It sheds a little humor on the situation,” he said of the coins. “And it’s something that helps us, I guess, mentally and emotionally cope with the situation because especially right now, the situation is pretty dire out there.”

Some agents echoed a grievance aired by Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in an April 16 memo seen by Reuters that criticized the Biden administration’s directive to use the terms ‘undocumented non-citizen’ or ‘migrant’ and stop using the phrase ‘illegal alien.’

“Over the years many outside forces on both extremes of the political spectrum have intentionally, or unintentionally, politicized our agency and our mission,” Scott wrote in the memo to acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller.

The memo was first leaked to the right-wing news site Breitbart.

The Biden administration official defended the new terminology, saying that choice of words mattered and that those in custody deserved to be treated with dignity.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York, editing by Ross Colvin and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. defends response to child migrant surge at southwest border

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the U.S. response to a surge of unaccompanied children seeking to enter the United States at the southwest border on Tuesday, saying the region was on track to see more people trying to enter than any time in the last 20 years.

The government is creating a joint processing center to transfer the children, as young as 6 years old, promptly into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and is trying to find additional shelters for them, Mayorkas said in a statement.

“The situation we are currently facing at the southwest border is a difficult one. We are tackling it,” he said.

President Joe Biden’s administration has been racing to speed up the processing of hundreds of youths under 18 who are crossing the southern border alone every day from Central American countries and Mexico.

Officials have warned “the border is not open” and said they are sending back adults and families who have tried to cross it illegally since Biden took office promising to reverse some of predecessor Donald Trump’s hardline policies.

Administration officials have acknowledged their messaging is being countered by people smugglers and human traffickers who profit from the dangerous illegal journeys.

“The smugglers’ message is very pervasive, they prey on people and they prey on their hope and they tell them things that simply aren’t true,” Roberta Jackson, a White House adviser on immigration, said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday. “But we are fighting back.”

Nearly 4,300 unaccompanied children were being held by Border Patrol officials as of Sunday, according to an agency official who requested anonymity. By law, the children should be transferred out of Customs and Border Protection facilities to HHS-run shelters within 72 hours.

Mayorkas acknowledged that Border Patrol facilities are crowded and that the 72-hour time frame for their transfer to HHS is not always met.

In the short term, the federal government is setting up additional facilities in Texas and Arizona to shelter unaccompanied children and families, and is working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families, he said.

Authorities are creating joint processing centers so children can be transferred immediately from Border Patrol to HHS, which is getting additional facilities to house the children until they are placed with families or sponsors, Mayorkas said.

They also will work with Mexico and international groups to expand an online platform that children can access to register for entry into the United States without taking the dangerous trip, he said.

Longer-term solutions include developing a formal refugee program that includes processing centers in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The Biden administration will soon issue a new regulation and other asylum reforms, including shortening the time it takes to adjudicate an asylum claim from years to months, Mayorkas said.

While poverty, violence and corruption in the Northern Triangle and Mexico have led people to seek a better life in the United States for years, Mayorkas said the coronavirus pandemic and two hurricanes have made the situation worse.

Republicans in Congress on Monday stepped up attacks on Biden over a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, but were criticized in turn by Democrats for their own immigration record, as well as Trump’s policies.

“The prior administration completely dismantled the asylum system. The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers,” Mayorkas said on Tuesday. “We have had to rebuild the entire system.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Ted Hesson and Susan Heavey; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Nick Zieminski and Jonathan Oatis)

Analysis: Facing critics, Biden boxed in with few options for influx of migrant children

By Ted Hesson and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is racing to deal with an increasing number of migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it has limited options and “none are great,” one U.S. official said.

The influx, which comes as Biden relaxes some of former President Donald Trump’s more restrictive immigration policies, has left the Democratic president facing criticism not only from opposition Republicans but also members of his own party, who say some children are being held in custody for too long.

Biden’s administration, however, faces legal, space and cost constraints as it tries first to house and then speed the release of thousands of children coming over the border.

Under U.S. law, federal health officials are required to provide housing and care for unaccompanied migrant children until they can be placed with a parent or other sponsor, but they have limited bed space in state-licensed facilities to do so.

If the number of children arriving without a parent or legal guardian continues to rise, officials will have to expand emergency housing, start a time-consuming process to open more licensed facilities or release children faster.

“We will have to make big and small changes,” the U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal operations, told Reuters. “(We are) assessing options now because none are great.”

Migrant children are supposed to be transferred out of Border Patrol custody within 72 hours. But when shelter space is limited, they can get stuck in border detention centers for longer periods – as is happening now, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In 2019, migrant advocates raised concerns about hundreds of children – including toddlers – being detained without adequate food, clean clothes and diapers, toothbrushes or showers.

Robert Carey, who directed the refugee office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under former President Barack Obama, said changing the policies around housing children will not happen quickly “even if they are putting a tremendous amount of effort into it.”

“It’s a Herculean task,” he said.

CHALLENGES

Biden is already running up against some of the same issues that vexed previous administrations.

One example of complications facing the president – U.S. health officials on Friday lifted coronavirus-related restrictions that cut federal shelter capacity by 40% and maxed-out bed space.

The relaxation of the restrictions boosted capacity to about 13,000, with 8,100 children in government custody as of Monday. But beds are filling up quickly.

While officials acknowledge that allowing more children into the shelters will raise the risk of more COVID-19 cases, the administration says it has little choice, since it takes so long to open new facilities.

Long-term shelters need state licensing that complies with local child welfare laws, a process that could take up to a year and can be hamstrung by local opposition from both critics of detention centers and anti-immigration groups.

Emergency influx shelters can be erected more quickly on federal properties, and the Biden administration is surveying agencies to see what options might be available, including military bases.

Finding adequate federally controlled land or buildings that can be made available and converted for children in a short amount of time is a challenge, said Mark Greenberg, a former top official at HHS, which oversees the shelters.

Greenberg worked at the department during a 2014 surge in unaccompanied minors.

“We spent a lot of time to trying to identify other federal properties that might be available in the future,” he said of the efforts. “Most agencies did not have property to offer.”

The best option would be smaller-scale shelters or foster homes, but finding and opening those sorts of spaces are longer-term projects, according to Leah Chavla, a senior policy adviser with the New York City-based Women’s Refugee Commission.

OUT FASTER

One way to lessen the need for housing is to speed up the release of children to U.S. sponsors – something Biden has asked about in meetings, according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

But move too fast and predators may try to take advantage of the system, according to former HHS officials. In 2013 and 2014, for example, some Guatemalan teenagers were released and then forced to work on an egg farm in Ohio.

“We need to take the time to vet the individuals who these kids are being connected with,” Psaki told MSNBC on Tuesday. “We’re trying to figure out how to expedite this process.”

Some measures are already being put in place, but the moves are unlikely to have a significant effect on the housing crunch if the number of children arriving keeps rising.

U.S. officials are now sending unaccompanied children to shelters in the interior of the country instead of automatically quarantining them for 14 days near the border, according to a person familiar with the decision. They are also streamlining background checks of sponsors by moving to a new database system.

Cecilia Munoz, a top White House official dealing with immigration issues under Obama, said handling unaccompanied minors at the border will be one of the biggest challenges for the Biden administration, which she said inherited problems caused by Trump’s border policies.

“I’ve lived through my own version of this,” Munoz said. If “you have hundreds of kids in Border Patrol lock ups, and they can’t stay there, you have few options and your options are more expensive.”

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, editing by Ross Colvin and Aurora Ellis)

Color-coded passage: Why smugglers are tagging U.S.-bound migrants with wristbands

y Adrees Latif, Laura Gottesdiener and Mica Rosenberg

PENITAS, Texas (Reuters) – Along the banks of the Rio Grande in the scrubby grassland near Penitas, Texas, hundreds of colored plastic wristbands ripped off by migrants litter the ground, signs of what U.S. border officials say is a growing trend among powerful drug cartels and smugglers to track people paying to cross illegally into the United States.

The plastic bands – red, blue, green, white – some labeled “arrivals” or “entries” in Spanish, are discarded after migrants cross the river on makeshift rafts, according to a Reuters witness. Their use has not been widely reported before.

Some migrants are trying to evade border agents, others are mostly Central American families or young children traveling without parents who turn themselves into officials, often to seek asylum.

Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector, which spans more than 34,000 square miles (88,000 square kilometers) along the border in southeast Texas, have recently encountered immigrants wearing the bracelets during several apprehensions, said Matthew Dyman a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The “information on the bracelets represents a multitude of data that is used by smuggling organizations, such as payment status or affiliation with smuggling groups,” Dyman told Reuters.

The differing smuggling techniques come as Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration has sought to reverse restrictive immigration polices set up by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. But a recent jump in border crossings has Republicans warning the easing of hardline policies will lead to an immigration crisis.

U.S. border agents carried out nearly 100,000 apprehensions or rapid expulsions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in February, according to two people familiar with preliminary figures, the highest monthly total since mid-2019.

PURPLE BRACELET

The categorization system illustrates the sophistication of organized criminal groups ferrying people across the U.S.-Mexico border, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center

“They run it like a business,” said Cardinal Brown, which means “finding more patrons and looking for efficiencies.” Migrants can pay thousands of dollars for the journey to the United States and human smugglers have to pay off drug cartels to move people through parts of Mexico.

“This is a money-making operation and they have to pay close attention to who has paid,” she said. “This may be a new way to keep track.”

Criminal groups operating in northern Mexico, however, have long used systems to log which migrants have already paid for the right to be in gang-controlled territory, as well as for the right to cross the border into the United States, migration experts said.

When increased numbers of Central Americans were arriving at the border on express buses in 2019, smugglers kept tabs on them by double checking “the names and IDs of migrants before they got off the bus to make sure they had paid,” Cardinal Brown said.

A migrant in Reynosa – one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico across the border from McAllen, Texas – who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation, showed Reuters a picture of a purple wristband he was wearing.

He said he paid $500 to one of the criminal groups in the city after he arrived a few months ago from Honduras to secure the purple bracelet to protect against kidnapping or extortion. He said once migrants or their smugglers have paid for the right to cross the river, which is also controlled by criminal groups, they receive another bracelet.

“This way we’re not in danger, neither us nor the ‘coyote,'” he said, using the Spanish word for smuggler.

One human smuggler who spoke on conditions of anonymity, confirmed the bracelets were a system to designate who has paid for the right to transit through cartel territory.

“They are putting these (bracelets) on so there aren’t killings by mistake,” he said.

Migrants and smugglers say the use of bracelets to designate who has paid for the right to cross the river is a system required by the cartels that control waterfront territory in the conflict-ridden state of Tamaulipas.

In January, a group of migrants were massacred in Tamaulipas state just 40 miles (70 km) west of Reynosa. Twelve local Mexican police have been arrested in connection with the massacre.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif in Texas and Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Mexico; Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Ross Colvin and Lisa Shumaker)

Some migrants waiting in Mexico for U.S. court hearings caught crossing illegally

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Roughly one in 10 migrants pushed back to Mexico to await U.S. court hearings under a Trump administration program have been caught crossing the border again, a top border official said on Thursday.

Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said during a White House briefing that migrants returned to Mexico under a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) have a 9% recidivism rate. Many of those migrants intend to seek asylum in the United States.

“Unfortunately, some of the individuals in the MPP program are actually going outside the shelter environment,” Morgan said. “They’re re-engaging with the cartels because they’re tired of waiting. And that’s when we’re hearing that some of that further abuse and exploitation is happening.”

Morgan said that around 50,000 people have been returned to Mexico under the program. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for more details on his comments.

The administration of Republican President Donald Trump launched the MPP program in January as part of a strategy to deter mostly Central American families from trekking to the U.S. border to seek asylum. Trump officials have argued the bulk of such claims for protection lack merit and that migrants are motivated by economic concerns.

Immigration advocates say asylum seekers sent to wait in Mexican border towns, for the weeks or months it takes for their cases to wind through backlogged immigration courts, face dangerous and possibly deadly conditions.

Migrants who claim fear of returning to Mexico can ask to stay in the United States for the duration of their court case. But just 1% of cases have been transferred out of the program, according to a Reuters analysis of federal immigration court data as of early October.

The administration has said the MPP program and other measures has helped lead to a decline in border arrests. In October, apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border fell for the fifth straight month, Morgan said.

The White House briefing followed a leadership change at the Homeland Security Department on Wednesday.

The Trump administration installed Chad Wolf, previously chief of staff to former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as acting secretary. Wolf then announced that acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli – an immigration hard liner – would be elevated to the No. 2 position at the department.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. border patrol faces probe; White House bashes asylum ruling

U.S. Border Patrol agents stand at attention during a 'Border Safety Initiative' media event at the U.S.-Mexico border in Mission, Texas, U.S., July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

By Makini Brice and Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has ordered an investigation into reports that border patrol agents have been posting offensive anti-immigrant comments and threats against lawmakers on a private Facebook group.

The move was announced amid mounting criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of a humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, with lawmakers and government investigators warning of dangerous conditions in migrant detention centers.

“Reporting this week highlighted disturbing and inexcusable social media activity that allegedly includes active Border Patrol personnel,” acting DHS head Kevin McAleenan said on Twitter on Wednesday, calling the reported comments “completely unacceptable.”

He said any employee found to have “compromised the public’s trust in our law enforcement mission will be held accountable.”

The Facebook posts, first reported by the non-profit news site ProPublica included jokes about the deaths of migrants and sexually explicit content referring to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who was highly critical of the detention facilities after a tour this week.

The White House also criticized a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle who on Tuesday blocked an administration move to keep thousands of asylum seekers in custody while they pursued their cases.

“The district court’s injunction is at war with the rule of law,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “The decision only incentivizes smugglers and traffickers, which will lead to the further overwhelming of our immigration system by illegal aliens.”

Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

The American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant rights groups sued the government in April after Attorney General William Barr concluded that asylum seekers who entered the country illegally were not eligible for bond.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman on Tuesday ruled that people detained after entering the country to seek asylum were entitled to bond hearings.

MIGRATION FLOWS

The record surge of mostly Central American families at the U.S. southwestern border has begun to ease after tougher enforcement efforts in Mexico, although the situation remains dire, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.

The U.S. government’s internal watchdog on Tuesday said migrant-holding centers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley were dangerously overcrowded, publishing graphic pictures of cells holding twice as many people as they were built for.

Mexico’s government, citing unpublished U.S. data, said migrant arrests at the border fell 30% in June from the previous month after it started a migration crackdown as part of a deal with the United States to avoid possible trade tariffs.

The Mexican government said it was now busing home dozens of Central American migrants from Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, who were forced to wait in Mexico for their asylum claims to be processed under a U.S. policy known as “Remain in Mexico.”

“Mexico’s effort to control the flow of migrants appears to have broken a growing trend,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

After migrant arrests reached a 13-year monthly high in May, immigration has arguably become the biggest issue for President Donald Trump and the Democratic contenders vying for the chance to face him in the 2020 presidential election.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker would “virtually eliminate immigration detention” if he wins the White House, his campaign said on Tuesday.

Presidential hopeful Julian Castro last week proposed decriminalizing border crossings as a step toward freeing up federal resources and eliminating thousands of cases clogging criminal courts – an initiative favored by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is also running for the Democratic nomination.

Trump, meanwhile, looked to stir up support for his policies, promising immigration raids after the July 4 U.S. holiday to arrest migrants with deportation orders.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, Diego Ore and David Alire Garcia in Mexico City, Jonathan Allen in New York and David Alexander and Makini Brice in Washington; Writing by Andrew Hay and Paul Simao; Editing by Michael Perry and Bill Trott)

Supreme Court takes up Mexican border shooting dispute

FILE PHOTO: The Supreme Court stands in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to decide whether the family of a Mexican teenager fatally shot while on Mexican soil by U.S. Border Patrol agent who fired from across the border in Texas can pursue a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. courts.

It marks the second time the Supreme Court will consider the legal dispute involving Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, who was 15 when he was slain in 2010 along the U.S.-Mexico border – a case that now will be decided during heightened U.S. tensions with Mexico over President Donald Trump’s border policies.

The justices will decide whether to allow the family’s civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages against Border Patrol agent Jesus Mesa to proceed.

The court previously ruled in the same case in 2017, but did not decide the important legal question of whether Hernandez’s family could sue for a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which bars unjustified deadly force. The lawsuit also states that Hernandez’s right to due process under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment was violated.

The justices instead threw out a ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had barred the lawsuit and asked the lower court to reconsider the matter. The 5th Circuit last year again ruled against Hernandez’s relatives, prompting them to seek Supreme Court intervention for a second time.

The high court’s ruling likely also will affect a similar cross-bordering shooting case in which Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz fatally shot Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old Mexican citizen, from across the border in Arizona. That case is also pending at the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, has been generally reluctant to extend the scope of civil rights protections. For example, it ruled in 2017 that former U.S. officials who served under President George W. Bush could not be sued over the treatment of non-American citizen detainees rounded up in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The Trump administration, which has taken a tough stance on border security and other immigration issues, has urged the court not to allow the Hernandez and Rodriguez lawsuits.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Democrats push technology as alternative to Trump wall in shutdown impasse

A visitor walks by the U.S. Capitol on day 32 of a partial government shutdown as it becomes the longest in U.S. history in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives floated the idea on Wednesday of ending a partial government shutdown by giving President Donald Trump most or all of the money he seeks for border security with Mexico but for items other than a physical wall.

Representative James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, told reporters that Democrats could fulfill Trump’s request for $5.7 billion for border security with technological tools such as drones, X-rays and sensors, as well as more border patrol agents.

Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, also said Democrats would be discussing “substantial sums of additional money” for border security as part of a possible deal. He did not say if it would amount to the $5.7 billion sought by Trump.

Trump has demanded funding for a physical wall in a showdown with Democrats that has left 800,000 federal workers without pay amid a partial government shutdown that entered its 33rd day on Wednesday.

Clyburn’s offer would be a significant monetary increase over bills previously passed by Democrats, which included only about $1.3 billion for this year in additional border security, with none of that for a wall.

“Using the figure the president put on the table, if his $5.7 billion is about border security then we see ourselves fulfilling that request, only doing it with what I like to call using a smart wall,” Clyburn said.

As congressional Democrats and Trump battle over border security and government funding, a parallel controversy continued over the president’s upcoming State of the Union address.

Trump sent a letter to House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday saying he looked forward to delivering it as scheduled on Jan. 29 in the House chamber. Pelosi had earlier asked Trump to consider postponing because security could not be guaranteed during the shutdown.

The U.S. Senate has scheduled votes for Thursday on competing proposals that face steep odds to end the shutdown.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to hold a vote on Thursday on a Democratic proposal that would fund the government for three weeks but does not include the $5.7 billion in partial funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Its prospects appeared grim. The House has passed several similar bills but Trump has rejected legislation that does not include border wall funding. McConnell previously said he would not consider a bill that Trump did not support.

McConnell also planned to hold a vote on legislation that would include border wall funding and temporary relief for “Dreamers,” people brought illegally to the United States as children, a compromise Trump proposed on Saturday.

Democrats have dismissed the deal, saying they would not negotiate on border security before reopening the government, and that they would not trade a temporary restoration of the immigrants’ protections from deportation in return for a permanent border wall they view as ineffective.

Trump’s plan is “wrapping paper on the same partisan package,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday.

Trump, in a series of morning tweets, pushed fellow Republicans to stand by border wall, which during his 2016 campaign he had said Mexico would pay for. He was scheduled to discuss his immigration plan with local leaders and with conservative leaders at the White House.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters on Wednesday that Trump also has made calls to Democrats.

Furloughed federal workers are struggling to make ends meet during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Many have turned to unemployment assistance, food banks and other support, or have sought new jobs.

 

(Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb, Roberta Rampton, Eric Beech, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott)

Trump likely to give U.S. troops authority to protect immigration agents

A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, poses for a photo after climbing up the border fence between Mexico and United States while moving to a new shelter in Mexicali, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Idrees Ali and Lizbeth Diaz

WASHINGTON/TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is likely to give U.S. troops authority to protect immigration agents stationed along the U.S. border with Mexico if they come under threat from migrants seeking to cross into the United States, a U.S. official said on Monday.

Ahead of U.S. congressional elections earlier this month, Trump denounced the approach of a caravan of migrants as an “invasion” that threatened American national security, and he sent thousands of U.S. troops to the border to help secure it.

Currently, the troops do not have authority to protect U.S. Customs and Border Patrol personnel. The new authority could be announced on Tuesday, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials briefly closed the busiest border crossing from Mexico early on Monday to add concrete barricades and razor wire amid concerns some of the thousands of Central American migrants at the border could try to rush the crossing.

Northbound lanes at the San Ysidro crossing from Tijuana to San Diego, California, were temporarily closed “to position additional port hardening materials,” a U.S. CBP spokesperson said.

A Department of Homeland Security official, who requested anonymity, told reporters on a conference call that U.S. officials had heard reports some migrants were intending to run through border crossings into California.

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, move to a new shelter in Mexicali, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, move to a new shelter in Mexicali, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The closing was rare for the station, which is one of the busiest border crossings in the world with tens of thousands of Mexicans heading every day into the United States to work or study.

“Today was a lost day of work. I already called my boss to tell her that everything was closed and I did not know what time I would be able to get in,” said Maria Gomez, a Mexican woman who crosses the border every day for work. “I cannot believe this is happening.”

Trump had remained mostly silent about the caravan since the Nov. 6 vote, but on Monday he posted a photo on Twitter showing a fence that runs from the beach in Tijuana into the ocean now covered with razor wire.

Critics charged that his talk of a migrant “invasion” was an effort to rouse his political base ahead of the elections.

Officials have stressed that the 5,900 active-duty U.S. troops on the border are not there in a law enforcement capacity and that there are no plans for them to interact with migrants.

Instead, their mission is to lend support to the CBP, and they have been stringing up concertina wire and erecting temporary housing.

The commander of the mission told Reuters last week that the number of troops may have peaked, and he would soon look at whether to begin sending forces home or shifting some to new border positions.

About 6,000 Central Americans have reached the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, according to local officials. More bands of migrants are making their way toward Tijuana, with around 10,000 expected.

Hundreds of local residents on Sunday massed at a monument in a wealthy neighborhood of Tijuana to protest the arrival of the migrants, with some carrying signs that said “Mexico first” and “No more migrants.”

Last month, thousands of Central American migrants began a long journey from Honduras through Mexico toward the United States to seek asylum.

Other bands of mostly Salvadorans followed, with a small group setting off on Sunday from San Salvador.

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler and Cynthia Osterman)