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)

More migrants caught crossing U.S.-Mexico border despite pandemic restrictions

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Border Patrol detained roughly 30,000 migrants attempting to cross the southwest border with Mexico in June, a 41% increase from the previous month, even as sweeping coronavirus-related border restrictions instituted by President Donald Trump remain in place.

Roughly nine in 10 of those caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in June were single adults, according to statistics released on Thursday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The number of single adults from Mexico detained at the border is on pace to rise this year, a shift away from arrests of mostly Central American families and unaccompanied children in 2019.

Trump, a Republican, faces reelection on Nov. 3 and has made his efforts to restrict illegal immigration – including the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border – a focus of his 2020 campaign. His presumptive Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, would end the diversion of billions of dollars in military funding for wall construction.

As the coronavirus spread across the United States in March, the Trump administration restricted non-essential travel across the borders with Mexico and Canada to contain the disease. At the same time, the administration put in place health-focused rules that allowed U.S. border authorities to rapidly expel migrants caught trying to cross illegally, arguing they could bring the virus into the United States.

The number of migrants caught by Border Patrol – particularly families and unaccompanied children – plummeted in April as the new measures went into effect and countries in the region initiated lockdowns.

Despite gradual increases seen both in May and June, the crossings still remain far below last year, when arrests peaked in May at 133,000.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington D.C.; Editing by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Daniel Wallis)

Charities slam Calais ban that could halt food aid for migrants

An aid worker provides assistance near a group of migrants claiming to be minors who use blankets to protect themselves from the cold as they prepare to spend the night after the dismantlement of the "Jungle" camp in Calais, France, October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Matthias Blamont and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) – Charities expressed outrage on Friday as the mayor of French port Calais, which has symbolized Europe’s refugee crisis, signed a ban on gatherings that could stop aid groups distributing meals to migrants and refugees.

A decree published on Thursday said the Calais authority believed that handing out meals at the site of the former “jungle” migrant camp was one reason for a rise in ethnic tensions and conflict between rival groups of migrants.

The decree, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, said food distribution by charities had led to large numbers of people gathering at the site of the now-closed camp, with fights breaking out and risks posed to the safety of local residents.

It did not expressly ban food distribution, but said it was “necessary to ban all gatherings” at the site and banned people from entering it. The decree said gatherings tended to take place “after the distribution of meals to migrants”.

Migrants have been streaming into Calais for much of the last decade, hoping to cross the short stretch of sea to Britain by leaping onto trucks and trains, or even walking through the railway tunnel under the English Channel.

Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart, a member of conservative party The Republicans who signed the decree, defended her decision on the grounds of public safety and the damage to the local Calais economy caused by the refugee problem.

In a statement, Bouchart said it was also up to the national government to deal with the problem, and that she had always sought to act with “humanity” towards the refugees.

But human rights groups criticized the move, with some saying they would still hand out food to migrants and refugees.

“You’re talking about young people and children. You just can’t deprive them of food,” said Gael Manzi, who works for local aid association Utopia 56.

Manzi said Utopia 56 would continue to distribute food, but at a new site elsewhere in Calais.

Last month, non-government associations said hundreds of migrant children had been returning to Calais, despite the dismantling of the “jungle” camp late last year.

The influx of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa is a key issue in France’s upcoming presidential election, with many voters concerned about competition for scarce jobs, security, and the risk of further terror attacks.

Police forces are still deployed permanently in the area where the “jungle” camp stood.

(Reporting by Matthias Blamont and Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Andrew Callus and Catherine Evans)

France clears ‘Jungle’ migrant camp in Calais, children in limbo

Migrants/refugees with their belongings during evacuation

By Matthias Blamont

CALAIS, France (Reuters) – France began clearing the sprawling “Jungle” migrant camp on Monday as hundreds gave up on their dreams of reaching Britain, a tantalizingly short sea crossing away.

Following sporadic outbreaks of unrest overnight, the migrants chose instead with calm resignation to be relocated in France while their asylum requests are considered.

By lunchtime more than 700 had left the squalid shanty-town outside Calais on France’s northern coast for reception centers across the country. Hundreds more queued outside a hangar, waiting to be processed before the bulldozers move in.

French officials celebrated the peaceful start to yet another attempt to dismantle the camp, which has become a symbol of Europe’s failure to respond to the migration crisis as member states squabble over who should take in those fleeing war and poverty.

But some aid workers warned that the trouble overnight, when some migrants burned toilet blocks and threw stones at riot police in protest at the camp’s closure, indicated tensions could escalate.

“I hope this works out. I’m alone and I just have to study,” said Amadou Diallo from the West African nation of Guinea. “It doesn’t matter where I end up, I don’t really care.”

The Socialist government says it is closing the camp, home to 6,500 migrants, on humanitarian grounds. It plans to relocate them to 450 centers across France.

Many of the migrants are from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea and had wanted to reach Britain, which is connected to France by a rail tunnel and visible from Calais on a clear day. Some had wished to join up with relatives already there and most had planned to seek work, believing that jobs are more plentiful than in France.

Britain, however, bars most of them on the basis of European Union rules requiring them to seek asylum in the first member states they set foot in.

DESTINATION UNKNOWN

Even as the process began, the fate of about 1,300 unaccompanied child migrants remained uncertain.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve urged Britain last week to step up efforts to identify and resettle child migrants. London has given priority to children with family ties and discussions are underway with Paris over who should take in minors with no connections.

Britain’s Home Office said on Monday it had reluctantly agreed to suspend the transfer of more children, on the request of the French authorities.

For now, children will be moved to converted shipping containers at a site on the edge of the Jungle before they are interviewed by French and British immigration officials, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva said.

“It’s cold here,” said one Sudanese teenager who identified himself as Abdallah. “Maybe we’ll be able to leave in a bus later, or next week, for Britain.”

Armed police earlier fanned out across the Jungle as the operation got underway.

Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said that authorities had not needed to use force and that the large police presence at the camp on Monday was just for security.

RAZING THE CAMP

Aid workers went from tent to tent, urging migrants to leave the camp before heavy machinery is rolled in to start the demolition.

The hundreds who volunteered on Monday to move on were each given two destinations to chose from before being bussed to the reception centers. There they will receive medical checks and if they have not already done so, decide whether to apply for asylum.

The far-right National Front party said the government plan would create mini-Calais camps across France.

Officials expect 60 buses to leave the camp on Monday and the government predicts the evacuation will take at least a week.

Many tents and makeshift structures that had housed cafes, bakeries and kiosks lay abandoned. On the side of one wooden shack a message to British Prime Minister Theresa May had been scrawled in spray-paint: “UK government! Nobody is illegal!”

Despite the calm, charity workers expect hundreds will try to stay and cautioned that the mood could change later in the week when work begins on razing the camp.

“There’s a risk that tensions increase in the week because at some point the bulldozers are going to have to come in,” said Fabrice Durieux from the charity Salam.

Others warned that many migrants who remained determined to reach Britain would simply scatter into the surrounding countryside, only to regroup in Calais at a later date.

“Each time they dismantle part of the camp it’s the same thing. You’re going to see them go into hiding and then come back. The battles will continue,” said Christian Salome, president of non-profit group Auberge des Migrants.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva and Kylie MacLellan in London; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Geert De Clercq and David Stamp)