U.S. borders reopen, but not for asylum seekers stuck in Mexico

By Kristina Cooke, Mica Rosenberg and Caitlin O’Hara

NOGALES, Mexico (Reuters) – Leo fled his hometown in southern Mexico after his uncle was murdered by gang members and he received death threats. Earlier this year, he, his wife and their two children headed to the U.S.-Mexico border hoping to claim asylum.

After months of waiting, he hoped he would finally get his chance on Monday. But even as U.S. borders opened for travelers vaccinated against COVID-19, they remained closed to asylum seekers.

When Leo, 23, and his family approached the port of entry in Nogales, Mexico with his and his wife’s vaccination cards in hand, they were told by a border official they could not enter and seek asylum.

“I feel dispirited and sad,” said Leo, who asked his last name not be published for fear of reprisals from the gang he fled. President Joe Biden “is just continuing the same policies of Donald Trump.”

Biden has kept in place a controversial U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order, first implemented by his Republican predecessor Trump in March 2020, that allows migrants to be immediately expelled without an opportunity to seek asylum.

The Biden administration has said the CDC’s order, known as Title 42, remains necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as asylum seekers are processed in crowded settings at the border.

Any foreign national attempting to enter the United States without proper documentation will be subject to expulsion regardless of vaccination status, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Advocates have criticized the Biden administration’s continuation of the expulsion policy as borders reopen.

The idea that a vaccinated asylum seeker is more of a risk than a vaccinated tourist is laughable, said Noah Gottschalk, global policy lead with Oxfam America, one of the advocacy groups suing the Biden administration to overturn the Title 42 order. Gottschalk said the exclusion of vaccinated asylum seekers strengthens the group’s argument that the policy isn’t about public health.

In September, a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to stop expelling family units – parents or legal guardians arriving with their children – under the Title 42 order. The administration appealed, and a higher court put the judge’s ruling on hold as the case moves forward.

Last month, more than 1,300 medical professionals signed letters to the CDC urging it to end the border expulsions order, saying it lacked epidemiological evidence to justify it and put migrants at risk.

New York-based nonprofit Human Rights First has documented more than 7,600 kidnappings and other attacks on migrants stuck in Mexico who were blocked from entering the United States since Biden took office in January.

Leo has been working in construction to pay rent in Nogales, but he says his earnings are not enough to support his family. “They abuse you because they know you are not from here, they pay you what they want,” he said.

He is also worried about his children getting hit by a stray bullet when gunshots ring out at night. The U.S. State Department recommends Americans reconsider travel to the Mexican state of Sonora, where Nogales is located, due to crime and kidnapping.

“We were fleeing a place that was dangerous,” said Leo. “And here it is the same.”

(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco, Mica Rosenberg in New York and Caitlin O’Hara in Nogales, Mexico; Editing by Mary Milliken and Karishma Singh)

U.S. extends travel curbs at Canada and Mexico land borders

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Friday extended the closure of its land borders with Canada and Mexico to non-essential travel such as tourism through Sept. 21 despite Ottawa’s decision to open its border to vaccinated Americans.

The latest 30-day extension by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), came after Canada said in July it would start allowing in fully vaccinated U.S. visitors starting Aug. 9 for non-essential travel after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a lengthy ban that many businesses have called crippling.

“In coordination with public health and medical experts, DHS continues working closely with its partners across the United States and internationally to determine how to safely and sustainably resume normal travel,” DHS said on Twitter.

The United States has continued to extend the extraordinary restrictions on Canada and Mexico on a monthly basis since March 2020, when they were imposed to address the spread of COVID-19. Reuters reported this week the extension was expected.

The latest restrictions extend the prohibitions beyond the end of the busy U.S. summer tourism season. Airline officials say it will be at least weeks and potentially months before any U.S. travel restrictions are lifted, citing the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

The U.S. land border restrictions do not bar U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents from returning to the United States.

Separate from the Canada and Mexico land border restrictions, the United States bars most non-U.S. citizens who within the last 14 days have been in the United Kingdom, the 26 Schengen countries in Europe without border controls, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.

The White House confirmed on Aug. 5 it may require visitors from abroad to be vaccinated as part of its plans to eventually reopen international travel but it had yet to decide and would not immediately lift restrictions.

The White House in June launched interagency working groups with the European Union, Britain, Canada and Mexico to look at how eventually to lift travel and border restrictions.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Gareth Jones and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. plans to double number of asylum officers in Biden border overhaul

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden’s administration will unveil a major overhaul of the U.S. asylum system on Wednesday, including a plan to double staff, in an effort to speed processing at the U.S.-Mexico border where migrant arrests have soared to 20-year highs this year.

The new proposed rule would authorize asylum officers to decide whether or not to approve a claim for protection at the Mexico border, bypassing backlogged immigration courts where cases can often take years to be resolved by judges, according to a summary of the regulation and Reuters interviews with U.S. officials.

The Biden administration aims to hire an additional 1,000 asylum officers and another 1,000 support staff, said a senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, who declined to be named ahead of an official announcement. The hiring spree would more than double the current crop of about 800 asylum officers and would be funded either by Congress or immigration application fee hikes.

“We hope that we will be able to assess claims within three months of arrival,” the senior official said. “A lot of that will depend on the number of asylum officers that are hired.”

The new process is the biggest proposed change to the asylum system since Biden took office in January, and a key part of a 21-point immigration plan unveiled in July.

The proposal for the reworked asylum process comes as arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border have risen to the highest monthly levels in two decades, giving opposition Republicans ammunition to hammer Biden, a Democrat, for rolling back many of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies.

“If we can determine who is a legitimate asylum seeker and who is not earlier in the process, I think that drives down some of the incentives for irregular migration,” the official said.

Biden’s asylum overhaul is overshadowed by his decision to keep in place a Trump-era border expulsion policy known as Title 42, which the administration says is needed to limit the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic.

Title 42, issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), blocks most migrants caught at the border from even being considered for asylum.

‘EXPEDITED REMOVAL’

The proposal will go through a 60-day period of public comment, followed by a government review. The process to finalize it could stretch into early 2022, the DHS official said.

The regulation would apply to immigrants who are placed in fast-track deportation proceedings known as “expedited removal” on or after the rule’s effect date.

The changes could enable more migrants in the expedited removal program to be released from custody, with the possibility of being enrolled in an alternative form of monitoring as their cases are processed.

Currently, expedited removal is typically only applied to immigrants in detention. That greatly limits its application, particularly for families, due to limited space for family detention, the official said.

The expedited removal provision could trigger backlash both among immigration hardliners and liberals, since it would allow immigrants to be released from custody while also expanding the use of the fast-track deportation process.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Aurora Ellis and Ross Colvin)

Biden offers temporary ‘safe haven’ to Hong Kong residents in U.S

By Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Thursday offered temporary “safe haven” to Hong Kong residents in the United States, allowing potentially thousands of people to extend their stay in the country in response to Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in the Chinese territory.

In a signed memo, Biden directed the Department of Homeland Security to implement a “deferral of removal” for up to 18 months for Hong Kong residents currently in the United States, citing “compelling foreign policy reasons”.

“Over the last year, the PRC has continued its assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy, undermining its remaining democratic processes and institutions, imposing limits on academic freedom, and cracking down on freedom of the press,” Biden said in the memo, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

“Offering safe haven for Hong Kong residents who have been deprived of their guaranteed freedoms in Hong Kong furthers United States interests in the region. The United States will not waver in our support of people in Hong Kong,” Biden said.

The vast majority of Hong Kong residents currently in the United States are expected to be eligible for the program, according to a senior administration official, but some legal conditions apply, such as individuals not having been convicted of felonies.

The White House said in a statement that the move made clear the United States “will not stand idly by as the PRC breaks its promises to Hong Kong and to the international community.”

Those eligible may also seek employment authorization in the United States, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.

The measure is the latest in a series of actions Biden has taken to address what his administration says is the erosion of rule of law in the former British colony, which returned to Beijing’s control in 1997.

The U.S. government in July applied more sanctions on Chinese officials in Hong Kong, and issued an updated business advisory warning companies of risks of operating under the national security law, which China implemented last year to criminalize what it considers subversion, secessionism, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.

Critics say the law facilitates a crackdown on pro-democracy activists and a free press in the territory, which Beijing had agreed to allow to operate under considerable political autonomy for 50 years after it regained control.

China retaliated against the U.S. actions last month with its own sanctions on American individuals, including former U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross.

U.S. lawmakers have sought legislation that would make it easier for people from Hong Kong fearing persecution after joining protests against China to obtain U.S. refugee status, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the United States should accept people fleeing the Hong Kong crackdown.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; editing by Gerry Doyle and Jonathan Oatis)

Canada-U.S. land border restrictions, hotel quarantine extended

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada and the United States on Tuesday extended a land-border closure for non-essential travelers, and air passengers arriving in Canada will continue to be tested for COVID-19 ahead of a hotel quarantine period, authorities said.

The land-border restrictions, imposed in March 2020, have been extended to May 21. Now in place for 13 months, they are being renewed month by month. Mexico said late on Monday it was maintaining some of its border restrictions, too.

“We are guided by science and public health data and engaged in discussions with Canada and Mexico about easing restrictions as health conditions improve,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said on Twitter.

The restrictions have hit many border communities and businesses hard. Many U.S. lawmakers have urged loosening the restrictions or setting a road map to resuming normalized travel.

Canada continues to lag the United States on vaccinations, and much of the country is now fighting a virulent third wave of the disease with school and business closures.

Canada’s required three-day hotel quarantine following testing at airports, which was introduced as a temporary measure to discourage spring break travel, was also extended to May 21, health authorities said.

Canada began testing international air arrivals in February, and requiring them to pay for a three-day hotel quarantine themselves, a measure criticized by airlines hit hard by the pandemic.

Air travelers are also are required to have had a test within three days of departure. If the airport text comes back negative, they can finish a 14-day quarantine at home.

However, data obtained by Reuters showed that more than 1,000 passengers, or 1.5% of those who arrived from Feb 22 to March 25, tested positive for COVID-19, casting doubt over a broad easing of restrictions before the summer travel season.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer in Ottawa and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Mexico’s president disputes rights concerns over trapped asylum seekers

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador brushed away concerns on Friday about the living conditions of thousands of asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico under a U.S. program that President Joe Biden is scrambling to unravel.

Humanitarian organizations have documented cases of attacks, extortion, kidnapping, and sexual violence against those in the program. Most are from Central America and many live in shelters and cramped apartments in dangerous border towns or in a squalid tent city in Mexico’s far northeast.

Lopez Obrador disputed the accounts, saying he had “other data” and that his government would release a report on the migrants next week.

“We have been taking care of the migrants and we have been careful that their human rights are not affected,” Lopez Obrador told a news conference.

“…It’s nothing like it was before, when they were kidnapped and disappeared. We have been attentive and we have protected them.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, under Biden’s new administration, said on Wednesday it would end all new enrollments in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, which since 2019 has forced more than 65,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court hearings, sometimes for months or even years.

The announcement did not specify what will happen to the tens of thousands currently waiting in Mexico under the program, saying only that they “should remain where they are, pending further official information from U.S. government officials.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener; editing by John Stonestreet)

U.S. Congress in sprint to fund government, approve COVID-19 emergency aid

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress will try this week to end months of indecision and infighting over the federal government’s budget priorities and coronavirus aid, with more than $2 trillion in funding from Washington potentially at stake.

Lawmakers, facing a midnight Friday deadline, will scurry to put the finishing touches on a $1.4 trillion spending bill for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

At stake are funds for federally run programs ranging from healthcare, homeland security and military readiness to foreign aid, national parks and nutrition programs. They have been operating on temporary funding since October.

Without a deal, the government must begin shutting non-emergency programs and furloughing many workers.

Members of the Republican-run Senate and Democratic-led House of Representatives, who fear negotiations could extend through the Christmas holiday, have a second major task: deciding the contours of a coronavirus aid bill that could approach $1 trillion amid a worsening pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 Americans.

Some moderate lawmakers on Sunday dismissed suggestions that a $908 billion bipartisan coronavirus aid proposal was languishing.

“The plan is alive and well and there’s no way, no way that we are going to leave Washington without taking care of the emergency needs of our people,” Democratic Senator Joe Manchin told Fox News, saying the proposal would be introduced formally on Monday.

A person briefed on the matter said the authors now planned to divide the measure into two separate proposals, which could be voted on separately. One would be a $748 billion proposal including small businesses, the jobless and COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

The other would include major sticking points such as coronavirus-related liability protections for business, which are backed by Republicans, and $160 billion for state and local governments, a Democratic priority.

Lawmakers are hoping to attach the aid to the government funding measure.

Local public health agencies worry that without a deal on either of the two bills, they will not have enough money to carry out a massive COVID-19 vaccination program.

The first shipments of Pfizer Inc’s newly approved vaccine were delivered on Sunday.

WHO WINS AND WHO LOSES?

With the twin goals of stimulating the struggling U.S. economy and financing purchases of medical supplies, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are faced with deciding who should receive new help from Washington – beyond over $3 trillion appropriated last spring – and who should not.

Democrats have been pushing hard for aid to state and local governments to insure against laying off more workers, including police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, dismissed that on Friday as a “preposterous” federal handout for Democratic-leaning states that he says do not need it.

But even some of McConnell’s own Republicans disagreed.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told reporters her state’s revenues had seen a 33 percent decline during the pandemic in an economy heavily dependent on summertime tourism.

“We’re a state that is really, really hurting right now,” Murkowski said on Friday, adding that many others are in the same situation.

The House’s No. 2 Democrat, Steny Hoyer, offered a glimmer of hope that a breakthrough might be possible, telling CNN on Sunday that Democrats “are not going to get everything we want. We think state and local (aid) is important. And if we can get that, we want to get it. But we want to get aid out to the people who are really, really struggling and are at grave risk.”

Congress also is divided over whether to do a second round of direct payments to Americans to help stimulate the economy.

“We have a history now of going to the 11th hour and 59th minute on all of this and it’s very unfortunate. That’s where we are,” lamented Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who is retiring at year’s end.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. watchdog investigating immigration detention center tied to allegations of improper hysterectomies

By Ted Hesson and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said at a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the department’s internal watchdog is investigating a Georgia immigration detention center tied to allegations of improper hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures.

Wolf said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general would interview people at the facility on Wednesday and Thursday, but cautioned that “some of the facts on the ground” did not back up the allegations.

“At this point, they are allegations, and we need to make sure that they fully investigate them so that all sides have a chance to be heard,” Wolf said during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The claims were made by Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center, in a complaint filed to the inspector general last week.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has denied the allegations, which have shocked people across Latin America, from where many U.S. immigrants hail, and caused an outcry among Democratic lawmakers.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

North America extends coronavirus travel restrictions: U.S. official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States, Mexico and Canada are extending restrictions on non-essential travel across their shared borders for an additional 30 days, U.S. Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said in a tweet.

“As President Trump stated last week, border control, travel restrictions, and other limitations remain critical to slowing the spread of coronavirus and allowing the phased opening of the country,” Wolf wrote.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

North Korea hacking threatens U.S., other countries, international financial system: U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. government officials warned on Wednesday about the threat of North Korean hackers, calling particular attention to banking and other finance.

The reason for the advisory – which was jointly issued by the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation – was unclear. North Korean hackers have long been accused of targeting financial institutions, and the content of the warning appeared to draw on material already in the public domain.

Requests for comment sent to the U.S. agencies were not immediately returned. The North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

North Korea is alleged to be behind an ambitious, years-long campaign of digital theft, including siphoning tens of millions of dollars in cash from ATMs, carrying out gigantic thefts at major banks, extorting computer users worldwide, and hijacking digital currency exchanges. The global money-grab has been a topic of increasing international concern.

Last year, for example, a U.N. report said that North Korea had generated an estimated $2 billion for its weapons of mass destruction programs using “widespread and increasingly sophisticated” hacking efforts.

In Wednesday’s advisory, U.S. officials said North Korea’s online activities “threaten the United States and countries around the world and, in particular, pose a significant threat to the integrity and stability of the international financial system.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Tim Ahmann, and Raphael Satter in Washington. Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York. Editing by Steve Orlofsky)