Migrants on school buses? Texas town feels caught in the middle

By Alexandra Ulmer

DEL RIO, Texas (Reuters) -Many residents of the Texan border town of Del Rio have been saying for months that they feel abandoned by the federal government as border arrests hit 20-year highs.

Now, with several thousand migrants sheltering in precarious conditions under the International Bridge connecting Del Rio and Mexico’s Ciudad Acuña, the resentment is getting worse.

On Friday night, a local lawyer published a Facebook post saying that local school district buses were transferring migrants, mostly Haitians, to processing facilities.

“THE SAME BUSES OUR CHILDREN WILL RIDE ON MONDAY!!!!” Jacques De La Mota wrote alongside pictures of a yellow school bus seemingly picking up migrants in the dark.

De La Mota’s post was shared at least 1,400 times and received more than 300 comments, many from local residents who said they were worried about diseases. But some called out what they said was barely-veiled racism. “This post is giving me segregation vibes,” read one comment.

The local school district superintendent issued a statement explaining that only two buses, neither currently in use to transport students, had been deployed.

De La Mota told Reuters he was simply concerned about health and angry that the district was enlisted to help solve a federal problem.

The uproar over school buses is just one example of discontent over immigration in this town of 35,000, where some 85% of the community is Hispanic and the nearby Laughlin Air Force Base is a big employer.

Many residents are also furious over the closure of the International Bridge, ordered on Friday due to the crowds of migrants, that is inflicting economic pain on both sides of the border.

A small group protested on Saturday, with one woman waving a sign that said “BIDEN BORDER CRISIS.” Another driver, going over the bridge when it was still open last week, looked down at the huddled migrants and grumbled that Del Rio residents might as well move over to Mexico.

BIDEN ON BACK FOOT

Val Verde County, whose county seat is Del Rio, went for Donald Trump over Joe Biden by a ten-point margin in the 2020 election, with some approving of his hardline immigration policies. Del Rio’s mayor Bruno Lozano has made no qualms about calling out his fellow Democrat president.

“Where is your plan to protect American communities at the southern border?” Lozano tweeted on Saturday. “I spoke to Governor Abbott today. We have developed a temporary plan, we’d like to see yours.”

Arguing that Biden’s promise of a more “humane” approach to migration has galvanized crossings, Greg Abbott, a Republican, has cracked down.

Among his measures: Apprehending migrants for allegedly trespassing on private property and preparing to build some of the border wall Trump promised, whose construction Biden paused.

Abbott, who faces a gubernatorial primary in March, has been criticized for his response to a devastating February storm and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The border issue could be a boon for him and Republicans more broadly, said James Henson, director of The Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s a good issue for Republicans as it taps into a growing nativist sentiment in the Texas GOP,” said Henson.

De La Mota, himself the descendant of Mexicans who immigrated several generations ago, is a registered Democrat who said the border crisis means Biden can no longer automatically count on his vote. “It causes me to reconsider what I would do in the next cycle,” he said.

School Board member Joshua D. Overfelt, who wrote in a statement that he opposed the request for buses because there was no guarantee migrants were not carrying “multiple diseases,” said that while he felt sorry for the asylum-seekers, he had to balance that with residents’ feelings of being overrun.

He recalled his father’s fright in May when he walked into his barn towards his tractor and discovered 13 Mexican migrants hiding there.

“The community is just caught in between,” he told Reuters.

To be sure, there are also residents in Del Rio mobilizing to help migrants.

Some 35 locals volunteer at Del Rio’s sole facility to care for migrants, said Tiffany Burrow, the director of operations. Burrow said there are “misconceptions” in the community about their work, including false assumptions that the organization pays for migrants’ travels onwards in the United States.

“We don’t focus so much on the political aspect but rather the idea of helping our neighbor,” said Burrow. “When you’re doing it from that motive, it’s not as controversial.”

(Writing by Alexandra UlmerEditing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. Senate Democrats unveil details of $3.5 trln follow-up bill

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Democrats in the U.S. Senate on Monday released some details of the $3.5 trillion bill addressing social spending and immigration that they aim to push through after passing the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

The first details of the larger bill — a key goal for progressive Democrats — showed that it would provide tax incentives for “clean” manufacturing, make community college free for two years and provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrant workers.

The first bill, which sits atop Democratic President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda and includes $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges and internet access, cleared an important procedural hurdle late on Sunday when the Senate voted 69-28 in support of the provisions contained in the 2,702-page plan.

The Senate also voted 68-29 to limit further debate to a maximum of 30 hours, setting up a potential vote on passage early on Tuesday on the package, the result of months of bipartisan negotiations.

The massive spending bill is popular among many lawmakers in both parties because of the federal dollars it would deliver to their home states. Polls also show that Americans at large are supportive of it.

But the moment of bipartisanship that produced it was likely to be fleeting as Democrats prepare to turn their attention next to the larger bill, which they aim to pass over Republican objections using a parliamentary maneuver called “budget reconciliation.”

Democrats are aiming to debate and pass this nonbinding resolution in coming days, which would serve as a framework for more detailed, binding legislation later this year. Republicans have strenuously objected to the size and cost of the follow-up package.

PARLIAMENTARIAN’S POWER

The ambitious goals of this budget plan will be reviewed by the Senate parliamentarian, who has the power to strip out provisions found to be at odds with Senate rules. The full Senate, however, could vote to over-rule such decisions.

In a letter to senators, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the budget plan is aimed at “restoring the middle class” by making education, child care and housing more affordable.

A separate Democratic memo says the $3.5 trillion costs would be fully paid for by a combination of tax increases, savings in federal health care programs and projected long-term economic growth.

The latter claim is debated by many economists who often disagree over the accuracy of the economic impact stemming from new policies enacted by Washington.

There would be no tax increases for those making under $400,000 a year, Democrats said.

The tax increases, which already have been previewed by the Biden administration and Senate Democrats, would hit high-income earners and would be coupled with beefed-up IRS tax enforcement. The measure also calls for a “carbon polluter import fee.”

The plan also called for extending a new, expanded child tax credit that progressives wanted to make permanent. And it would provide “relief” to tax filers bumping up against a cap on a state and local tax deduction tightened by a 2017 Republican-backed tax law.

Still unclear is whether Democrats will attach a debt limit increase to the reconciliation bill that will be developed in coming weeks or will seek another way of raising Washington’s nearly exhausted borrowing authority.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday again urged Congress to take quick action in a bipartisan way.

WEEKEND WORK

The Senate worked for a second straight weekend to advance the infrastructure bill aimed at repairing, expanding and improving roads, bridges, waterworks and schools, while also expanding high-speed internet service in underserved areas.

During debate on Sunday, Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada noted the boost for her state’s mining industry, saying new money would strengthen “a critical mineral and battery supply chain that supplies key components of cellphones and laptops, electric vehicles, solar panels and more.”

The Senate had been scheduled to begin a four-week summer recess, but instead found itself in session on both Saturday and Sunday, which saw little more than occasional speeches before the procedural votes.

Even with passage of the bill this week, senators will still not be able to go back to their home states or jump onto foreign trips popular during long recesses.

That is because Schumer aims to launch immediately into debate of the budget framework providing the outlines for the $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” bill that Democrats want to begin advancing in September.

Passing any major legislation is difficult given the 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, with Democrats claiming a majority thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives.

If the $1 trillion bill is approved by the Senate, as expected, the House would still have to debate and vote on it, sometime after it returns in late September from its summer break.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Alistair Bell)

U.S. to speed up asylum processing at border while fast-tracking deportations

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration will speed up processing of asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border while also fast-tracking expulsions of some migrant families, according to a plan unveiled by the White House on Tuesday.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has reversed many of the restrictive immigration policies of his Republican predecessor, former President Donald Trump. But border arrests have risen to 20-year highs in recent months, fueling attacks by Republicans, who say Biden encouraged more migration.

The 21-point plan aims to create a “fair, orderly and humane immigration system” but notes that “won’t be achieved overnight.” Details of the plan have been previously foreshadowed by the administration in its annual budget request to Congress and other announcements.

The administration aims to speed up processing of asylum claims at the southern border by authorizing asylum officers to rule on cases, according to the plan, bypassing the back-logged federal immigration courts. A draft rule to make that change has been under review at the White House budget office since early July.

The administration also said it would use a process known as expedited removal to resolve the cases of some families caught at the U.S.-Mexico border more rapidly, potentially deporting them. However, the document provided few details about the new policy.

Two sources familiar with the move said the fast-track deportations would apply only to families that do not claim a fear of persecution in their home country.

Several of the proposals in the blueprint will likely be scrutinized by lawmakers when Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies on the administration funding requests at a Senate committee on Tuesday.

Among the budget requests, the Biden administration is seeking funding that would allow some migrant families and other vulnerable individuals to receive legal representation as their immigration cases move through the U.S. court system.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Dan Grebler)

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. Justice Department ends Trump-era limits on grants to ‘sanctuary cities’

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department has repealed a policy put in place during Donald Trump’s presidency that cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to sanctuary cities that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

In an internal memo seen by Reuters, acting head of the Office of Justice Programs Maureen Henneberg said that prior grant recipients, including cities, counties and states that were recipients of the department’s popular $250 million annual grant program for local law enforcement, will no longer be required to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a condition of their funding.

She also ordered staff to take down any pending Justice Department grant applications with similar strings attached and start the process over again.

In the memo, Henneberg, who leads the department’s largest grant-making arm, said she had instructed staff to “pull down and revise all solicitations that describe requirements or priority consideration elements or criteria pertaining to immigration.”

“These solicitations will be reposted and grantees will be required to reapply,” she added.

It is one of a series of decisions by Attorney General Merrick Garland, an appointee of President Joe Biden, to break with policies put in place during the Trump administration. In another high-profile move, the Justice Department has stepped up investigations of U.S. police departments that face charges of brutality or discriminatory tactics.

Shortly after being sworn in, Biden overturned a Trump executive order that had allowed the Justice Department to pressure cities that refused to notify federal immigration authorities when people living in the U.S. illegally have been detained for criminal violations, including minor ones.

Garland on April 14 ordered the department to begin to implement the change.

LEGAL BATTLES PAUSED

The policy reversal marks a major victory for states and cities that have been unable to access awards they received through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants program, known as “Byrne JAG.”

Named for a New York City police officer killed in the line of duty, the Byrne JAG grant program is the Justice Department’s leading source of reimbursement to state and local law enforcement to pay for a variety of initiatives, from prosecutions and corrections programs, to drug and mental health treatment centers.

In fiscal year 2020, the program doled out more than $253 million in grants.

Trump made cracking down on immigration, legal and illegal, a centerpiece of his administration.

Some cities and states resisted his efforts by adopting “sanctuary” policies, arguing that close cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities can deter immigrants from coming forward to report crimes.

The fight to withhold Byrne JAG grant money prompted numerous lawsuits, as jurisdictions, including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco sued the Justice Department on the grounds that withholding the money was unlawful.

In one of those lawsuits brought by New York state, New York City and six other states, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in February 2020 sided with the Trump administration and ruled it was entitled to withhold millions in grant money.

The plaintiff states appealed to the Supreme Court, but the appeal was later withdrawn after Biden won the 2020 election.

The Justice Department and the plaintiffs jointly asked a federal judge in March to put the matter on hold, while the department finished reviewing the grant conditions at the heart of the case.

The New York Attorney General’s office said that during the last four years, the state hasn’t been able to tap more than $30 million in grant money from the Justice Department as a result of the pending litigation.

The Justice Department’s decision to cease using immigration-related criteria will apply to all of the department’s grants, according to the memo, as well as notices posted by several other Justice Department offices that award grants.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone, Aurora Ellis and Steve Orlofsky)

Biden names Harris to lead efforts with Mexico to stem flow of immigrants

By Andrea Shalal, Steve Holland and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Wednesday named Vice President Kamala Harris to lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle countries to try to stem the flow of migration to the United States.

Biden’s decision gives a high-profile assignment to his vice president, a daughter of immigrants who has forged a reputation as an ally of immigration advocates. As California attorney general, Harris had to deal with a major influx of unaccompanied minors at the state’s border with Mexico in 2014.

It is a task that comes with some political risks for Harris, a potential future presidential candidate. Border woes have been an intractable problem for multiple presidents.

Biden served in a similar role for then-President Barack Obama when he was vice president. By assigning her to handling diplomatic efforts with Central America, Biden is elevating the migration issue as a top priority.

Just two months in office, Biden is struggling to get a handle on a burgeoning migration challenge along the U.S. border with Mexico – a problem the Democrat blamed on “the somewhat draconian” policies of his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, who left office with his border wall incomplete.

Biden said the United States is going to need help from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and that Harris “agreed to lead our diplomatic efforts and work with those countries.”

“The best way to keep people from coming is to keep them from wanting to leave,” Biden said, listing gang violence, drug trafficking cartels, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes as factors spurring migration.

Harris said the job “will not be easy, but it is important work, it is work that we demand as a people of our country.”

U.S. officials are battling to house and process an increasing number of unaccompanied children, many of whom have been stuck in jail-like border stations for days while they await placement in overwhelmed government-run shelters.

Senior administration officials said Harris’s focus will be on regional solutions and working with leaders in the region to make it safer for people to remain in their home countries and make asylum requests there.

“We’re going to look at the possibility for people in their home countries in the Northern Triangle to have a predictable, regular process of seeking asylum there so they don’t have to take this phenomenally dangerous journey or, worse yet, send their children unaccompanied,” said one senior official who briefed reporters on the Harris move.

Another official said Biden had asked Harris to take on the job. She is expected to travel to the region at some point, but no trips are planned yet, the official said. Phone calls with leaders in the region are expected as well.

Since taking office in January, Harris has been carving out a role for herself as a key promoter of Biden’s U.S. coronavirus relief bill, the first major legislation the president signed into law.

Within that area, much of Harris’s focus has been on how the stimulus bill can help women and small businesses. She has also taken an active role in encouraging Americans to get vaccinated.

While she has not had a specific policy portfolio until now, she has had calls with foreign leaders, including key allies such as France and Israel.

Sergio Gonzales, executive director of the Immigration Hub, a migration advocacy group, welcomed Harris’s appointment, saying it “underscores the seriousness of the Biden-Harris White House to tackle every aspect of our broken immigration system.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal, Nandita Bose and Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Mohammad Zargham and Steve Holland; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Jonathan Oatis)

Biden set to accept more refugees

By Steve Holland and Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will issue an executive order to build up the country’s capacity to accept refugees, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said during a White House briefing on Thursday, but the timing of the action remains unclear.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said later in the briefing that she did not expect Biden to issue the order on Thursday, but that Biden is “committed to looking for ways to ensure more refugees are welcomed into the United States.”

Biden has pledged to restore the United States’ historic role as a country that welcomes refugees from around the world after four years of cuts to admissions under former U.S. President Donald Trump. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 1.4 million refugees worldwide in urgent need of resettlement.

During his presidency, Trump portrayed refugees as a security threat and a drain on U.S. communities as he took a series of measures to restrict legal immigration. The Biden administration is confronting a refugee program hobbled by Trump’s hardline policies, which led to the closure of resettlement offices and disrupted the pipeline of refugees to the United States, a situation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden was expected to issue the refugee order in conjunction with a speech on Thursday at the U.S. State Department that aims to reinvigorate the workforce there, but the order was delayed, according to one person familiar with the plan. The reason for the delay was not clear.

Biden vowed on the campaign trail to raise the annual refugee ceiling to 125,000, up from a record-low 15,000 set by Trump for this fiscal year.

Biden eventually plans to raise refugee levels this year, but the target will be lower than his goal of 125,000, according to two people familiar with the matter.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Steve Holland and Ted Hesson in Washington, Editing by Franklin Paul and Aurora Ellis)

Biden orders review of Trump immigration rules as officials say time needed to unravel them

By Ted Hesson and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday will order a review of asylum processing at the U.S.-Mexico border and the immigration system as he seeks to undo some of former President Donald Trump’s hardline policies, two senior administration officials said.

Biden will also create a task force to reunite migrant families who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border by Trump’s 2018 “zero tolerance” border strategy, the officials said on a call with reporters on Monday.

Immigration advocates have urged the new Democratic administration to move quickly but officials say they need time to unravel the many layers of immigration restrictions introduced during the Trump era and to put in place new, more migrant-friendly systems.

“Fully remedying the actions will take time and require a full-governance approach,” one of the officials said.

Biden’s executive orders on Tuesday will not address repealing a coronavirus-era order, known as “Title 42,” that was issued under the Trump administration and allows border officials to expel almost all people caught crossing the border illegally.

He will also mandate a review of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a program that pushed 65,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for U.S. court hearings. Most returned to their home countries but some remained in a makeshift camp near the Mexican border.

The Biden administration has already stopped adding people to the program but crucially it has not yet outlined how it will process the claims of those already enrolled.

“I can’t tell you exactly how long it will take to put in an alternative to that policy,” another official told reporters on Monday in response to a reporter’s question about processing people enrolled in the program.

Chad Wolf, former acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary under Trump, said in an interview that halting the MPP program was a mistake because it had been an effective deterrent to illegal immigration.

“If you do have a surge (of migrants), you’re taking one of your tools off the table,” he said in reference to the program.

Biden advisers have said in recent months they will not immediately roll back Trump’s restrictive border and asylum policies due to concerns about encouraging illegal immigration during the coronavirus pandemic. Biden himself said in December that his administration needed to set up “guardrails” so that the United States does not “end up with two million people on our border.”

Biden’s actions on Tuesday will follow six immigration orders he issued on his first day in office and will further jumpstart his ambitious pro-immigrant agenda that seeks to erase Trump’s restrictive policies on legal and illegal immigration.

HURDLES

But Biden’s efforts face logistical challenges and opposition from Republicans, according to immigration policy experts, former officials and activists on both sides of the issue.

Lawsuits by conservative groups could potentially slow down Biden’s agenda. A federal judge last week temporarily blocked one of his first immigration moves – a 100-day pause on many deportations – after the Republican-led state of Texas sought an injunction.

Trump won the presidency in 2016 while making border security a major theme of his campaign. If Biden fails to prevent surges in illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, he could give ammunition to Republicans in the 2022 congressional elections, said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

“This is the thing that rallied Donald Trump supporters,” she said.

Biden’s review of Trump’s so-called “public charge” rule is expected to start the process to rescind it, according to two people familiar with the plan. The rule makes it harder for immigrants who are poor or need government help to secure residency and stay in the country.

Biden’s expected order setting up the task force to reunite parents and children separated at the southern border was a key election promise.

The task force, however, will face a daunting challenge in trying to track down the parents of more than 600 children who remain separated, according to a January court filing in a related case. The children are living with relatives or in foster care, according to an attorney representing plaintiffs in the litigation.

The task force will be led by Alejandro Mayorkas, one of the senior officials said on Monday. Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, is expected to face a Senate confirmation vote on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin, Aurora Ellis and Alistair Bell)

Exclusive: Canada deporting thousands even as pandemic rages

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada deported thousands of people even as COVID-19 raged last year, data seen by Reuters shows, and lawyers say deportations are ramping up, putting people needlessly at risk in the midst of a global health emergency.

Like many other countries, Canada is struggling to stop a second wave from spiraling out of control, and its political leaders are begging residents to stay home to prevent the spread.

Lawyers and human rights advocates are decrying Canada’s November decision to resume deportations. Until now, the extent of the country’s pandemic deportations was not known, but recent interviews with immigration lawyers and scrutiny of government numbers has shed light on the situation.

Canada counted 12,122 people as removed in 2020 – 875 more than the previous year and the highest number since at least 2015, according to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) data seen by Reuters. The government says this was necessary and done safely.

The CBSA says the high number last year is because it includes people who decided to leave on their own, termed “administrative removals.” In 2019 there were 1,657 administrative removals, compared with 8,215 last year.

Even subtracting those numbers, that leaves thousands of people deported as the pandemic raged and governments cautioned against travel of any kind for safety reasons.

Even as Canada continues to deport non-citizens during a health crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden paused deportations for 100 days within hours of being sworn in on Wednesday.

Canada officially imposed a moratorium on deportations in March that it lifted at the end of November.

“As much as a human rights concern it’s a common sense concern,” said Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program.

Countries’ deportation practices have varied over the course of the pandemic. Several, including the United Kingdom, suspended deportations before resuming them. Others, like Ireland, have kept suspensions in place.

The CBSA said it has been prioritizing deportations for reasons of “serious admissibility,” including criminality.

The vast majority of people deported in 2020 were for reasons of “noncompliance.” Even taking into account administrative removals, more than 1,000 people were deported during the suspension, the data shows.

‘IT’S UNBELIEVABLE’

Public health experts have warned that travel of any kind can spread COVID-19 from one place to another, a risk that grows with the advent of more highly transmissible COVID variants.

Many of the deportation trips involve transfers at multiple airports and flights during which people are placed in enclosed space in close quarters with other people for hours at a time, a situation ripe for transmission.

Since August Canada has been conducting deportations with CBSA escorts, so Canadians are also making thousands of these round-trip flights for deportation purposes.

Organizations including the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers spoke out against Canada’s decision to resume deportations.

“As everybody is putting in place more restrictions in an effort to flatten the curve … CBSA made a shocking decision to simply go back to business as usual,” said Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

“Canada has taken the position that nonessential travel is barred yet people are now being removed and there’s no indication that those removals are essential.”

The CBSA said in a statement it lifted the moratorium on deportations because foreign government offices and borders had reopened, airlines restarted their routes and public-health protocols “have contributed to a high degree of safety for persons being removed by air.”

“Canada continues to uphold both its human rights and public safety obligations in relation to the removal of inadmissible foreign nationals,” the statement said. “The removal process includes many checks and balances to ensure that the removal is conducted in a fair and just manner.”

But these deportations are endangering not only the people being deported but the government officers tasked with accompanying them to their destination, lawyers say.

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman’s Toronto office went from getting no removal cases to getting three or four in the space of a week, he said. He is now fighting for a failed refugee claimant with two young Canadian children who faces deportation to Egypt Monday.

“They’re ramping it up as if there was no pandemic,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Matthew Lewis)

Trump finalizes sweeping asylum restrictions in immigration crackdown

By Ted Hesson and Mimi Dwyer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration finalized a regulation on Thursday that greatly restricts access to asylum in the United States, part of an immigration crackdown.

The final rule cuts off asylum access for most migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border through a series of changes to eligibility criteria, according to experts and advocates. In addition, it directs immigration judges and asylum officers to deny broad types of asylum claims, such as those based on domestic abuse and gang violence, with some exceptions.

The new policy will almost certainly face legal challenges, which have sidelined other immigration initiatives put in place by President Donald Trump.

The latest restrictions are set to take effect on Jan. 11.

The asylum restrictions are part of a broader push to implement tougher immigration rules, a central focus of his years in office.

The new rule instructs asylum officers and judges to weigh negatively applications from migrants who crossed into the United States illegally, used fraudulent documents, or passed through other countries without seeking refuge elsewhere first.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Berkrot)