White House official says Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala to increase troops on borders

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration has secured agreements for Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala to place more troops on their borders, a White House official told Reuters on Monday amid the growing number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border.

The official did not provide any details. Earlier, White House aide Tyler Moran told MSNBC that the Biden administration had secured agreements with Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala to put more troops on their own border.

Reuters was not immediately able to establish what agreements the officials were referring to or whether they go beyond existing enforcement measures in those countries.

The Mexican, Honduran and Guatemalan governments did not respond immediately to requests for comment about any new measures.

Reuters reported in March that Mexico had stepped up raids aimed at rounding up immigrants transiting illegally north toward the U.S. border, and reinforced its efforts along its border with Guatemala.

Those efforts have not yet produced significant results, and have been complicated by pandemic restrictions and new rules limiting the capacity of Mexican immigration detention centers.

In January, just before Biden took office, Guatemala deployed security forces to halt a U.S.-bound caravan of migrants, and Guatemalan government officials have vowed to keep up the pressure.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in Mexico City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Ahmann)

U.S. caught the most migrants in two decades at U.S.-Mexico border in March

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. authorities caught more than 171,000 migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico in March, according to preliminary data shared with Reuters, the highest monthly total in two decades and the latest sign of the mounting humanitarian challenge confronting President Joe Biden.

The preliminary March arrest totals at the U.S.-Mexico border represent the highest monthly level since April 2000, when border patrol agents caught more than 180,000 migrants.

The total includes about 19,000 unaccompanied migrant children and 53,000 family members traveling together, the figures show. Single adults made up roughly 99,000 of the total.

The Biden administration is struggling to house newly arrived unaccompanied children, who are exempted from expulsion under a COVID-19 health order known as Title 42. Children have been backed up in crowded border stations and processing centers for days.

The shelter system that houses the children has been overwhelmed and U.S. officials have scrambled in recent weeks to open emergency shelters, including sites in convention centers in Dallas and San Diego.

Central American and Mexican migrants have made up the bulk of arrivals in recent months, in keeping with trends in recent years.

The March figures show a 178% increase in the number of migrant families caught at the border compared with last month.

While Biden said last week that the “vast majority” of families are being sent back to Mexico under Title 42, U.S. government data suggests that is not the case.

More than half of the 19,000 family members caught at the border in February were not expelled, according to public U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data, with many released into the United States to pursue immigration court cases.

Reuters also obtained three daily U.S. border enforcement reports in March that showed only 14-16% of family members were expelled on those days.

A CBP spokesman said official statistics would likely be released next week and declined to comment further.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokeswoman Sarah Peck said last week that given fluctuating migration flows, “one day or week of statistics doesn’t reflect the full picture.”

Peck said the department’s policy is still to expel families “and in situations where expulsion is not possible due to Mexico’s inability to receive the families, they are placed into removal proceedings.”

U.S. border agents have encountered more repeat crossers in the past year compared with recent years.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Howard Goller)

Biden tells migrants to stay put. Central Americans hear a different message

By Laura Gottesdiener

LA TÉCNICA, GUATEMALA (Reuters) – Maritza Hernández arrived at this remote Guatemalan village exhausted, with two young kids in tow and more than a thousand miles left to travel. She was motivated by a simple – if not entirely accurate – story.

“I heard news they are letting children in,” said Hernández, explaining she planned to cross the U.S. border in Texas and seek asylum.

The number of immigrant families apprehended by U.S. agents along the southern border nearly tripled in February from a month earlier to about 19,000 people. Hunger and poverty are spurring their flight. So is disinformation that has rocketed across social media and by word of mouth that the U.S. border is now wide open.

Reuters interviewed nearly two dozen migrants and more than a dozen people identifying themselves as smugglers, and examined hundreds of posts in closed Facebook groups where these “coyotes” advertise their services. The review revealed pervasive myths about immigration policy changes under U.S. President Joe Biden.

“There’s 100 days of free passage across the border,” a Guatemalan smuggler told Reuters.

The truth is much more complex.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to enforce a policy, implemented by former President Donald Trump one year ago, of returning most southern-border crossers to Mexico. About 70,000 people, or 72% of such migrants – mostly single adults – were rapidly deported in February alone, according to CBP data. Some of those people were likely repeat crossers as the recidivism rate has climbed in the past year, according to U.S. officials.

“Don’t come over,” Biden said in a March 16 interview with ABC News when asked to articulate his message to hopefuls. “Don’t leave your town or city or community.”

Still, it’s true that more migrants – mainly children and families – have been allowed to enter the United States in the early days of his administration than in the final days of Trump’s. In February, more than half of the family members caught with children at the border were not expelled. Many have been released from CBP custody into the United States as they await asylum hearings.

Their success has supercharged migrant and smuggler communication channels, with many now urging travelers to head north before the door slams shut, said Andrew Seele, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank.

“Smugglers can definitely exaggerate things and make up information, but they can’t completely sell what doesn’t exist,” Seele said.

Biden aide Roberta Jacobson, the White House’s southern border coordinator, said the administration is now more aggressively discouraging migration.

Since January, the State Department has placed more than 28,000 radio ads in Spanish, Portuguese and six indigenous languages on 133 stations in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil, and it has worked with Facebook and Instagram to create advertisements to dissuade migrants, according to the department and the White House.

Whether it works remains to be seen. Trump’s anti-immigration message was loud and clear. Yet on his watch in February 2019, U.S. border agents encountered more than 40,000 people traveling in family groups, about twice as many as the Biden administration saw last month, according to CBP figures.

SMUGGLER TRADE THRIVING

The business of moving migrants is booming in the hamlet of La Técnica, deep in a Guatemalan rainforest, where Hernández and her two children stopped to rest.

In early March, Reuters witnessed motorized canoes whisking hundreds of U.S.-bound migrants across the Usumacinta River to the area’s unguarded border with Mexico.

Carlos, a smuggler who gave only his first name, chatted by phone with a colleague in the Mayan language Q’eqchi’ about an impending arrival. This transportation crossroads is also an information hub where news – both true and fake – spreads rapidly.

“Supposedly the president is letting children in,” Carlos said of Biden.

Carlos had it partly right. Biden, in a shift from the previous administration, said he would not turn away “unaccompanied minors” – kids crossing the border without parents or legal guardians. These children can now enter the United States to pursue asylum claims, in accordance with U.S. law.

The new administration has done the same for some migrant families along a limited, 230-mile stretch of the border between Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. That shift came in early February after Tamaulipas refused to continue allowing U.S. border officials to expel back into the state Central American families with children under the age of six. Biden has said his team is working to convince Mexico to take more of those families back.

Much of this nuance has been lost in Central America, a region desperate for an escape valve. Migrants are being driven by gang violence and poverty that has been exacerbated by job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The situation is particularly dire in Honduras, where hurricanes Eta and Iota last November destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Nearly a third of the country’s population is now beset by a worsening hunger crisis, according to a government report published in February.

Hernández, who hails from the Honduran coastal state of Colón, said the storms wiped out the family’s chickens and inundated the farm fields where her husband worked. In February, she defied her spouse and set off for Texas with her two children, encouraged by news of other families successfully crossing the border.

The U.S. government radio spots warn migrants against such a journey. In an ad currently broadcast in Honduras, a man named “Jorge” advises “Rosita” that she could be “assaulted, kidnapped, abandoned or infected with coronavirus” – and would likely be detained or deported if she reached the United States.

But other U.S.-based sources are fueling the myth of an open border. Texas-based citizen journalist Luis Rodriguez, who was born in Honduras, has posted several videos for his 400,000 Facebook followers encouraging migrant families to capitalize.

“How long will this last? Well, no one knows,” he said in a March 7 video.

Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment.

Some high-profile Republicans, too, are sending the message via prominent news outlets that crossing is easy. In a March 21 interview on “Fox News Sunday,” U.S. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said “the border right now is wide open.”

Cotton repeated the exaggeration when contacted by Reuters.

SOME LUCKY, OTHERS NOT

Back in La Técnica, migrant Enrique Gallean shouted a warning to families gathered on the dock as he stepped off one of the rare boats bearing migrants back into Guatemala.

“They’re not letting children in!” he said.

Clutching his 8-year-old son’s hand, the Honduran native told Reuters he had recently crossed the U.S. border near Roma, Texas, and surrendered himself to CBP in the hopes of being allowed to pursue asylum. Instead, Gallean said, they were rapidly expelled to Mexico.

It was much the same for Hector Ruiz. A resident of El Salvador, he and his wife and three young children passed through La Técnica in early March with high hopes. He said he paid $20,000 to smugglers to get his spouse and kids to the Texas border to claim asylum. Ruiz, who had a previous deportation order, didn’t intend to cross, but he accompanied his family much of the way to ensure their safety.

Just over a week later, Ruiz told Reuters his wife and children had been expelled to Mexico.

“We went because we heard the news that there were 100 days of free passage!” Ruiz exclaimed by telephone. “Now we’re screwed.”

Hernández and her two children were luckier. She said that on March 19 her family turned themselves in to CBP in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, only to be released two days later to start the journey to Maryland, where her mother resides.

“We’re free!” she told Reuters by phone.

The news organization could not determine why the three were admitted while other families were not. CBP said it could not comment on the case due to security and privacy reasons.

Hernández’s WhatsApp profile now features a photo of her, the children and their grandmother beaming with happiness following their reunion. That portrait of success travels with each message she sends to friends and family back in Honduras.

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in La Técnica, Guatemala, and Monterrey, Mexico; additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Republicans plan Senate floor ‘fireworks’ over surge at U.S.-Mexico border

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans plan to take their opposition to President Joe Biden’s border policies to the U.S. Senate floor on Wednesday, attempting to move legislation that promises to tie up the chamber for hours, a source familiar with the matter said.

At least five Senate Republicans are expected to seek unanimous consent for a series of measures targeting Biden’s decision to reverse the border policies of former President Donald Trump, including a resolution labeling the current border situation a “crisis.”

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the actions could lead to some rhetorical “fireworks” on the Senate floor if Democrats block the measures, as expected. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office was not immediately available to comment on Democratic plans.

The anticipated actions are part of a mounting effort by Republicans in the Senate and the House of Representatives to pressure Biden and his fellow Democrats over a new flood of migrants, including unaccompanied children, to the U.S.-Mexico border. Republicans see an opportunity to retaliate against Democrats, who sharply criticized Trump’s border policies, ahead of the 2022 congressional elections.

A sharp rise in the number of migrants fleeing violence, natural disasters and economic hardship in Central America is testing Biden’s commitment to a more humane immigration policy than his predecessor’s.

Republicans say Biden’s decision to reverse Trump’s policies has given migrants an incentive to take the journey north and contend it poses health and security risks for American citizens.

Republicans are moving to capitalize on what Reuters/Ipsos polling shows to be an increasingly hostile attitude toward illegal immigrants among party voters. A Morning Consult poll released on Wednesday also showed that 48% of Democrats believe the United States is facing a “problem” with illegal immigration.

Details about the Republican measures to be offered on Wednesday were not immediately available. But the source said the effort could consume the Senate floor for up to three hours.

Biden was due to meet with immigration advisers and top Cabinet officials on Wednesday, while dispatching White House officials to a Texas resettlement facility as pressure mounts over a recent jump in migrant arrivals at the U.S. border.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Migrants in Mexican camp brave icy nights, chance to enter U.S. nears

By Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Roberto Manuel wore two shirts, three jackets and four pairs of pants to brace himself for subzero temperatures in Matamoros, the Mexican city opposite Texas, where he lives in a flimsy tent while waiting to resolve an asylum claim in the United States.

“It was cold last year, but not like this with ice,” the 43-year-old said on Tuesday evening by phone from the encampment, where he is among about 1,000 migrants, most from Central America, hoping to be granted refuge across the border.

Manuel, from Nicaragua, has lived there a year and a half under former President Donald Trump’s controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program that makes asylum seekers wait in Mexico for U.S. court hearings.

He is hopeful that President Joe Biden will make migration policies more humane, ending the uncertainty of his life in limbo on the border so he can make plans to work with a friend in Miami.

In fact, Biden’s administration has said a new process will gradually begin in coming days to allow thousands of MPP asylum seekers to await courts’ decisions within the United States, a policy change that should eventually empty the camp. But Manuel said he is fuzzy on the details.

For now, there is just the stinging cold, even in his layers, which has plunged swathes of northern Mexico and the southern United States into chilling temperatures and left millions of people without power.

“Everything froze – the water we cook with, even clothes became stiff with ice,” Manuel recalled from the previous night, when sleet pummeled the plastic tarps slung over camping tents as extra protection from the elements.

Even in the daytime, icicles clung to tent roofs and shards of ice glittered on the ground, a video filmed by another camp resident showed.

“How are we surviving the cold? With the embrace of God, nothing else,” said Sandra Andrade, 44, of El Salvador, narrating the video.

Her daughters, ages 8 and 11, left the camp a few months ago to join their uncle in Boston, and Andrade said she was relieved they were spared the deep freeze.

“If they had been here in this icebox, they would be crying from cold every night,” she said in an interview. Even she has had trouble sleeping, kept awake by the noisy wind stirring up the flaps of tents and tarps.

Now with Biden in office, Andrade said she hopes to be able to soon reunite with her daughters, although she worries the brutal cold snap could put a dent in the new plan.

“If it’s causing a slowdown in sending the vaccine, imagine a process like this,” she said.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Marguerita Choy)

U.S. continues plan to keep Central American migrants at bay

By Laura Gottesdiener, Frank Jack Daniel and Ted Hesson

CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (Reuters) – ​In the days before U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Mexican soldiers patrolling the banks of the wide Suchiate River found few migrants amid the flow of trade across the water from Guatemala.

The likely explanation lay hundreds of miles to the south, where baton-wielding Guatemalan security forces beat back one the largest U.S.-bound migrant caravans ever assembled, according to a Reuters photographer and other witnesses.

“We’re scared,” Honduran migrant Rosa Alvarez told a reporter by telephone as she fled with many others toward the nearby hills, two young children in tow.

The operation was part of a U.S.-led effort, pursued by past American administrations and accelerated under former President Donald Trump, to pressure first the Mexican and then the Central American governments to halt migration well short of the U.S. border.

Under the Biden administration, the same general strategy is likely to continue, at least for the near term, according to six U.S. and Mexican sources with knowledge of diplomatic discussions.

Biden has been gradually unraveling many Trump-era immigration policies. Yet the new administration has encouraged Mexico and Guatemala to keep up border enforcement in their countries to stem northward migration, according to two Mexican officials and a U.S official, all speaking on condition of anonymity.

Diplomats and experts at immigration think tanks told Reuters that it would be politically expedient for the Biden administration to keep asylum seekers and other migrants from trekking en masse to the country’s southern border, especially as Mexico and the United States are being ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and seeking to contain its spread.

They also said any rush to the U.S border could hand Biden’s political opponents ammunition to sink the rest of his immigration agenda, which includes providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants already in the United States and reducing asylum application backlogs.

The Biden administration has not specifically endorsed militarized action, however, and has vowed to treat migrants with dignity.

“They want the relevant countries to have appropriate border controls,” said one former U.S. official familiar with the matter, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “It doesn’t mean that they hold everyone back and beat back migrants. That’s not the objective here.”

A White House spokesperson declined to comment, referring Reuters to recent public remarks by Roberta Jacobson, a special assistant to the president specializing on the southwest border.

Jacobson told reporters on a recent call that the administration had not talked with Mexico specifically about how it deploys its security forces on its own soil. She added, however, that the two countries’ diplomats, as well as Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, had spoken about the need to jointly work on managing migration. She stressed the importance of addressing its root causes such as poverty and corruption.

Two other administration officials, including Juan Gonzalez, the president’s lead adviser on Latin American policy, recently underscored U.S. support for immigration enforcement well south of the U.S. border.

“I need to recognize here the work that (Guatemalan) President (Alejandro) Giammattei has done in managing the migration flows when the caravans started out,” Gonzalez told the El Salvadoran investigative website El Faro after the January crackdown.

The Mexican government has informed the new U.S. administration that it intends to keep current immigration enforcement measures in place because it is in Mexico’s sovereign interest to secure its own borders, one senior Mexican official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Biden already faces pressure from leading Republican lawmakers who accuse his administration of undermining immigration enforcement.

The new administration has “sketched out a massive proposal for blanket amnesty that would gut enforcement of American laws while creating huge new incentives for people to rush here illegally at the same time,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on the Senate floor after Biden’s first day in office.

Biden officials have repeatedly pleaded with asylum seekers not to migrate now, stressing that the administration needs time to enact its domestic immigration changes.

At the same time, human rights advocates say leaning on Mexico and Central America to halt mass migration violates people’s rights to seek asylum. It also potentially subjects them to further violence and abuse on their journeys north, they say.

“We’ve seen time and time again that militarized approaches don’t really stop people from leaving,” said Daniella Burgi-Palomino, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, an organization dedicated to influencing U.S. policy.

‘REGIONAL CONTAINMENT’

About 8,000 people, including many women and children, joined January’s migrant caravan shortly before Biden’s inauguration, aiming to arrive in the United States after he took office.

The Trump administration had all but locked down the U.S. southern border and forced some asylum applicants to wait for months in Mexico. It also had prodded Mexican and Central American governments, largely through threats, to confront migrant caravans.

For instance, Mexico in 2019 deployed 20,000 National Guard and soldiers to police its borders to stave off Trump’s threats to impose tariffs on Mexican goods.

Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras coordinated a regional containment strategy ahead of the January caravan, Martin Alonso Borrego, director of Latin America and the Caribbean for Mexico’s foreign ministry, told Reuters.

After a Jan. 11 meeting among the countries, Guatemala declared emergency powers in nearly a third of its states and deployed up to 4,000 soldiers, police officers and air force personnel.

As Biden’s inauguration approached, rumors that a large migrant group was forming in Honduras prompted Mexico to beef up its military presence at its own southern border and send buses to Guatemala to aid in the return of caravan members.

The crackdown in mid-January provided some respite to Mexican troops on the Suchiate River. It also inspired fear among migrants.

Honduran migrant Alvarez and her family spent days in Guatemala’s hills trying to make their way toward the Mexican border. “We’re without money and food,” she said, before Reuters lost touch with her.

In the mid-January confrontation in Guatemala, the Reuters photographer and other witnesses saw a wall of security forces confront hundreds of migrants, beating some and deploying tear gas. Some migrants threw rocks. Guatemalan immigration authorities reported an unspecified number of injuries.

Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman Jordan Rodas said “it was outrageous to see the scenes of how the military brutally received our Honduran brothers and sisters.”

Immigration experts and people familiar with the Biden administration’s thinking say Washington may try to exercise more oversight down the line over how Mexican and Central American authorities conduct border containment operations.

Proponents of greater U.S. immigration control say it would be a mistake to pull back on the Trump-era pressure.

“It’s not clear how effectively Guatemala and Mexico can block them, especially if the numbers get bigger and especially if they are not pressured to do so by Biden,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.

(Laura Gottesdiener reported from Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, and Mexico City; Frank Jack Daniel from Mexico City, and Ted Hesson from Washington, D.C. Additional reporting by Luis Echeverria in Vado Hondo, Guatemala; Sofía Menchu in Guatemala City, Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, and Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles. Editing by Julie Marquis)

White House says ‘vast majority’ of migrants at U.S.-Mexico border will be turned away

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will turn away most migrants caught at its border with Mexico under a Trump-era policy aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus and to give the Biden administration time to implement “humane” asylum processing systems, a White House official said on Wednesday.

The White House comments follow reports of the release of some migrant families into the United States and increasing pressure on President Joe Biden to reverse the restrictive policies of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

“Now is not the time to come,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a news briefing. “The vast majority of people will be turned away.”

U.S. officials in Texas last week released hundreds of Central American migrant families from custody amid concerns of overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities after local authorities in Mexico baulked at taking them back.

Biden has left in place a Trump-era COVID order called Title 42 that allows U.S. authorities to rapidly expel to Mexico migrants caught crossing the border illegally.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which filed a new lawsuit over the policy on Monday, said it uses a “guise” of public health to undermine legal protections for asylum seekers.

“Our fight for these families continues, until and unless the Biden administration ends this cruel practice once and for all,” Rose said in a statement.

The nascent Biden administration also faces pressure from congressional Democrats for its deportation practices.

A group of 12 Democratic lawmakers led by Representative Mondaire Jones of New York sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Monday criticizing recent deportations of Haitian immigrants.

The lawmakers said the removals appeared to go against Biden administration enforcement priorities outlined in a Jan. 20 memo and that it appeared immigration officials were “disparately targeting Black asylum-seekers and immigrants.”

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles,; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)

Guatemala detains hundreds of migrants at border as U.S.-bound caravan grows

By Gustavo Palencia and Sofia Menchu

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – The Guatemalan military has detained hundreds of migrants at its border as thousands of Hondurans, including many families with young children, continued to walk north on Friday as part of a caravan hoping to reach the United States.

The Guatemalan military detained 600 migrants at the border crossing point in Corinto and transferred them to immigration authorities on Friday, according to military spokesman Ruben Tellez. Separately, Guatemalan authorities returned 102 Honduran migrants back to Honduras on Thursday, after the first groups in the caravan set off from San Pedro Sula.

The Red Cross estimates that up to 4,000 people could join the caravan, as Honduras reels from violence and an economy shattered by hurricanes and coronavirus lockdowns.

“We’re suffering from hunger,” Oscar Garcia told Reuters as he made his way toward the Guatemala border. The banana plantation worker said his home was destroyed in November’s hurricanes, and that he’s fleeing north hoping to earn enough to send money back to support his mother and his young daughter.

“It’s impossible to live in Honduras, there’s no work, there’s nothing,” he added.

The first migrant caravan of the year comes less than a week before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

While Biden has promised a more humane approach to migration, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico are coordinating their own security and public health measures aimed at curtailing irregular migration across the region.

That will likely be a relief for Biden, whose aides have privately expressed concerns about the prospect of growing numbers of migrants seeking to enter the United States in the early days of his administration.

On Thursday, Guatemala cited the pandemic in order to declare emergency powers in seven border provinces migrants frequently transit through en route to Mexico. The measures limit public demonstrations and allow authorities to disperse any public meeting, group or demonstration by force.

On Friday, Mexico also deployed soldiers and riot police to its border with Guatemala.

Central America is reeling from a growing hunger crisis in the devastating fallout of the hurricanes, as well as violence and the lockdown measures that disrupted the job market.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Honduras, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala, Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey and Jose Torres in Tapachula; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Steve Orlofsky)

Migrant smugglers see boost from U.S. pandemic border policy

By Laura Gottesdiener and Sarah Kinosian

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – These days, Martin Salgado’s migrant shelter in the city of San Luis Rio Colorado on Mexico’s border with the United States feels more like an hourly hotel. His guests, many of them from Central America, often don’t even bother to spend the night.

Salgado said he has never seen people cycle through as repeatedly as he has in recent months, after the United States began expelling almost all migrants caught on the Mexican border rather than returning them to their homelands. Now, human smugglers often attempt to get migrants back across the border the very same day they are deported, he said.

Previously, Central American migrants apprehended at the border would be processed in the U.S. immigration system and would often be held for weeks, if not months, before being deported back to their home country.

“We never saw this before,” said Salgado, who runs the shelter near Arizona’s western limits founded by his mother in the 1990’s. Some Central Americans who arrive at the shelter after being deported “eat, bathe, and suddenly they disappear.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in March announced that it would begin to quickly expel nearly all migrants caught at the border under the authority of an existing federal public health act, known as Title 42, saying the move was necessary to prevent coronavirus spreading into the United States.

But the order appears to be having unintended effects.

It’s led to an increase in repeated border crossing attempts, data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows. And it’s benefiting the illegal networks that move people from Central America to the United States, according to interviews with more than a dozen migration experts, shelter directors, immigrant advocates and human smugglers.

That is because U.S. authorities are depositing the migrants on the border, rather than returning them home, which allows smugglers to eliminate some of the costs of repeat border crossings, said three smugglers working with transnational networks. The price migrants pay smugglers, which can be $7,000, or double that, often includes two or three attempted border crossings to offset the risks of being intercepted by Mexican or U.S. authorities, according to the three smugglers, as well as migration experts.

Not all migrants travel with smugglers, but even those braving the dangerous journey alone or in small groups often turn to coyotes at the border for the final stretch of the journey. Since they too are now being returned at the Mexican border when caught they now often pay for a second or third try, in another boon for the smuggling networks, said migrant experts and a guide tied to a smuggling network in the Sonora region.

U.S. border officials say the program, which has resulted in migrants being returned in an average of less than two hours, is crucial for protecting U.S. agents, health care workers and the general public from COVID-19 by avoiding the potential spread of coronavirus if migrants were apprehended, processed, and then sent to U.S. detention centers, as per previous policy.

“It would take just a small number of individuals with COVID-19 to infect a large number of detainees and CBP personnel and potentially overwhelm local healthcare systems along the border,” the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a statement.

Joe Biden clinched the U.S. presidency following the Nov. 3 election, though Trump has not acknowledged defeat and has launched an array of lawsuits to press claims of election fraud for which he has produced no evidence. The president elect has not laid out specific plans about the Title 42 program. A senior advisor to the Biden campaign in August told Reuters that Biden would look to public health officials for guidance on pandemic-related border closures.

“MAKING MORE MONEY”

Seeking safe passage on the perilous trek north, migrants often pay thousands of dollars to smugglers – known as ‘coyotes’ – linked to gangs that control territory in Mexico.

The three men who identified themselves as smugglers from different transnational networks told Reuters they save about $1,000 or more each time U.S. Border Patrol expels one of their Central American clients at the Mexican border rather than returning them back by plane to their home countries.

“It’s great for us,” said Antonio, a Salvadoran smuggler who is part of a network that he said charges migrants $14,000 a head for three runs at getting from Central America to the United States.

Antonio, like the others involved in the smuggling trade that Reuters interviewed, declined to give his last name.

He said his network spends at least $800 per migrant paying off drug cartels for the right to transit through their turf, then there are additional costs such as food, shelter, transportation, and occasional bribes to Mexican authorities.

In the past, when Central American migrants were caught by U.S. Border Patrol and sent home, his network would have to pick up that tab again on migrants’ second or third attempts.

Mexico’s immigration agency in August vowed to “eradicate the collusion between public servants and human smugglers” as it ousted hundreds of officials for work-related offenses.

Pablo, a Guatemalan who ferries migrants across Guatemala’s border into Mexico, estimated that the network he works for saves at least $1,300 for every Central American who is returned at the U.S. border rather than sent back to their homeland.

“We’re making more money because we don’t have to pay the mafia again in Mexico,” he said. “So, there’s an advantage.”

REPEATED ATTEMPTS

Migration numbers are returning to pre-pandemic levels, following steep declines this spring after Central American countries slammed their borders shut in an effort to halt the spread of coronavirus. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said it conducted nearly 55,000 expulsions and apprehensions of migrants at the southwest border in September. That is more than triple the figure for April and is slightly higher than the 40,507 a year earlier, according to CBP data.

And, apprehensions and expulsions continued to climb in October, said a U.S. official with knowledge of the numbers.

Still, migration numbers for the 12-month period ended in September were down from the previous year. The Title 42 order does not change deportation policy for Mexicans, who made up about two thirds of people expelled by the United States during August and September, according to the CBP. Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans account for the next three largest groups.

Meanwhile, the number of repeated attempts has sharply increased, indicating that fewer people are migrating than last year but more of those who are trying to cross the border multiple times.

Between April and September, the proportion of people caught crossing the border more than once surged to 37%, up from 7% for the 12-month period ended in September 2019, according to the CBP.

The president of the Border Patrol union in Laredo Texas, border agent Hector Garza, said the Title 42 order was helping limit the exposure of the border workforce to COVID-19 and avoid overwhelming local hospitals in communities in Texas, which are already experiencing a surge of coronavirus cases.

“But with any benefit there is a downside, and in this case, we’re seeing people coming back and forth, trying to cross multiple times within a 24-hour period,” he told Reuters.

In the border city of Ciudad Juarez on Oct. 31, across from the Texas city of El Paso, Cuban Alexander Garcia stood by the port of entry to the United States. Garcia, who identified himself as a doctor, said he had just been deported after his sixth attempt at crossing the border without authorization.

“They’re returning us in less than three hours!” exclaimed García. “We cross, and they just grab us and push us back into Juarez.”

U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, during a news conference last month, said the pandemic had reduced the ability and willingness of authorities to prosecute because detaining people potentially involved additional risk of spreading COVID-19 in the United States.

“IT MOTIVATES YOU”

About 125 miles east of Salgado’s shelter, Jesus, a guide linked to a local smuggling network, and his Guatemalan girlfriend, Yolanda, have been biding their time in a chilly trailer serving as a migrant stash house along the Mexican border.

They said nearby clashes between rival gangs have delayed Yolanda’s departure across the Sonoran desert into the United States.

But Jesus said he’s heartened by the new U.S. policy – and so are the town’s smugglers that he’s worked for over the years.

“It’s better because if people get caught, they come right back,” he said. “So it’s like, we’re still in business.”

Yolanda was also encouraged when, upon reaching the border, she found out that if she was caught, she would only be sent to Mexico, rather than likely being deported back home.

“It motivates you,” she said, explaining that she left Guatemala after she was forced to close her clothing shop when pandemic restrictions crippled the economy.

She racked up debts, fell behind on her mortgage, and lost her home, she said, joining a small but growing number of Central Americans fleeing the economic crisis triggered by pandemic-related restrictions across the region.

While Title 42 has encouraged some people to risk the crossing after being turned back, some human rights organizations say it erodes migrants’ rights because they are being rapidly returned to Mexico before having an opportunity to explain why they fled their countries or to present a case for why they would qualify for asylum under U.S. law.

CBP said in a statement the agency “remains committed to our obligations to provide safe haven to those who claim persecution.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Sarah Kinosian in Caracas, and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez in Ciudad Juarez; Editing by Dave Graham, Frank Jack Daniel and Cassell Bryan-Low)

Trump orders voting districts to exclude people in U.S. illegally

By Alexandra Alper and Nick Brown

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Donald Trump signed a memorandum on Tuesday that would prevent migrants who are in the United States illegally from being counted when U.S. congressional voting districts are redrawn in the next round of redistricting.

U.S. Census experts and lawyers say the action is legally dubious. In theory, it would benefit Trump’s Republican Party by eliminating the largely non-white population of migrants in the U.S. illegally, creating voting districts that skew more Caucasian.

“Including these illegal aliens in the population of the State for the purpose of apportionment could result in the allocation of two or three more congressional seats than would otherwise be allocated,” the memo said.

Responses from Democrats and immigration advocates were swift and condemnatory.

Dale Ho, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, vowed litigation.

“We’ll see (Trump) in court, and win,” he said in a statement.

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, derided what he viewed as an “unconstitutional order that has no purpose other than to silence and dis-empower Latino voices and communities of color.”

Proponents of citizens-only voting districts argue each vote should carry the same weight. If one district has far fewer eligible voters than another, they say, each vote there has more influence on election outcomes.

But the move carries major legal questions.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has left the door open for citizen-based voting maps for state legislatures, experts see it as a long-shot at the federal level, because the U.S. Constitution explicitly says that congressional districts must be based on “the whole number of persons” in each district.

In the memo, Trump said the word “persons” “has never been understood to include … every individual physically present within a state’s boundaries.”

Census experts say that is wrong: multiple federal laws have reinforced that apportionment must include everyone, and U.S. Supreme Court precedent has endorsed that view, said Joshua Geltzer, a constitutional law expert and professor at Georgetown Law.

“All of this makes Trump’s position outrageous,” Geltzer said.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper in Washington and Nick Brown in New York; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington, Mica Rosenberg in New York and Mimi Dwyer and Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Matthew Lewis)