Pentagon approves additional 2,100 troops to U.S.-Mexico border

A member of the Texas National Guard watches the Mexico-U.S. border from an outpost along the Rio Grande in Roma, Texas, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Wednesday it had approved a request to send an additional 1,000 Texas National Guard and 1,100 active-duty troops to the border with Mexico, the latest deployment in support of President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration crackdown.

Major Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman, told Reuters that acting Defense Secretary Richard Spencer had approved the additional troops on Tuesday night, and they would be assisting with tasks like logistical support and aerial surveillance.

There are currently about 4,500 active duty and National Guard troops on the border with Mexico.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Trump administration sets ‘new bar’ for immigrants seeking asylum

Migrants cross the Rio Bravo to enter illegally into the United States, to turn themselves in to request asylum, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 12, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Monday said it would take steps to make it more difficult for immigrants arriving on the southern border to seek asylum in the United States, putting the onus on them to ask for shelter in other countries.

The Department of Homeland Security, in a statement issued with the Department of Justice, said the interim rule would set a “new bar” for immigrants “by placing further restrictions or limitations on eligibility for aliens who seek asylum in the United States.”

The proposal would make it tougher for applicants who did not apply for protection from persecution or torture where it was available in at least one “third country” through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The Trump administration wants to slow down a flow of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border. Most are Central Americans who have traveled through Mexico and Guatemala on the way to the border, though some come from as far as Africa.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the initiative would “help reduce a major ‘pull’ factor driving irregular migration to the United States.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in the statement that while the “United States is a generous country,” it was being “completely overwhelmed” by the hundreds of thousands of “aliens along the southern border.” Many of them, he said, are seeking “meritless asylum claims.”

The measure is intended to take effect with the rule’s publication on Tuesday, according to the statement.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. holding 200 children at border, down from 2,500 in May

A teacher uses the Pledge of Allegiance in a reading class the U.S. government's newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, U.S. July 9, 2019. Picture taken July 9, 2019. Eric Gay/Pool via REUTERS

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – U.S. immigration authorities held about 200 unaccompanied children at locations along the southwest border as of Wednesday, down from more than 2,500 in May as funding increases enabled a U.S. health agency to take custody of them.The reduction in detainees as reported by a senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official follows a pair of recent internal government inspections that revealed overcrowding and filthy conditions for immigrants that inflamed the debate about President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policy.

Staff oversee breakfast at the U.S. government's government's newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, U.S. July 9, 2019. Picture taken July 9, 2019. Eric Gay/Pool via REUTERS

Staff oversee breakfast at the U.S. government’s government’s newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, U.S. July 9, 2019. Picture taken July 9, 2019. Eric Gay/Pool via REUTERS

Almost all detained unaccompanied children picked up by border officers are being turned over to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials within 72 hours of apprehension, the official told reporters on a conference call, speaking on the condition he not be named.

Criticism mounted after government inspectors and immigration lawyers found evidence children were being held long past legal limits at border facilities not equipped to house them.

Increasing numbers of mostly Central American families and children traveling alone – many seeking asylum in the United States – have overwhelmed authorities at a time when the Trump administration is pushing to limit legal and illegal immigration.

From late May to early June, the United States held about 2,500 to 2,700 children who were detained after crossing the border by themselves or who were separated from adults who were not their parents, the official said.

“To see these numbers currently at about 200 is very positive. That’s a huge difference since HHS has received their funding,” the official said. “Our goal is to get these individuals out of our custody as quickly as possible to HHS so they can have all the proper care and the long-term needs met for them.”

The U.S. Congress in June approved a $4.5 billion emergency supplemental funding bill aimed at improving conditions at the border, including $2.88 billion for HHS to provide shelter and care for unaccompanied children.

A legal settlement and anti-trafficking laws mandate that unaccompanied children traveling without a parent or legal guardian must be transferred to specialized facilities run by HHS. From there they are often released to sponsors in the United States as they pursue their immigration cases in court.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Determined to reach Europe, migrants defy Moroccan crackdown

African migrants stand in a hiding place in the mountains near Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

By Ahmed Eljechtimi and Ulf Laessing

TANGIER, Morocco (Reuters) – Senegalese migrant Ismail, 26, is back in the forests around the northern Moroccan port of Tangier, not long after being stopped there by authorities and bussed 872 kilometers south in an attempt to stop him reaching Europe.

But his desire to get to Spain is unrelenting, and so the cat-and-mouse game with authorities continues.

Last year Morocco became the main departure point for migrants to Europe, overtaking Libya where the coast guard has prevented more departures with help from the European Union.

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Morocco is only 14 kilometers south of the Spanish coast and shares land borders with the small Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta on its northern coast, which are surrounded by a 6 meter-high fence topped with razor wire.

Under a new crackdown this year, authorities are sending undocumented migrants they pick up to southern towns, far from the land and sea borders with Spain. They are also clearing migrant camps in the forests and halting the sale of dinghies and inflatables.

According to official figures as of May, the country had stopped 30,000 people from illegally crossing to Spain this year and busted 60 migrant trafficking networks.

Authorities say the clampdown on traffickers, in particular, saw migrant arrivals from Morocco to Spain drop in the first six months of 2019 to 12,053 from 26,890 in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Morocco is also about to complete a new 3 meter-high fence within its own territory around Ceuta to deter crossings, according to residents near the enclave.

“Authorities conduct surprise raids to comb the forests looking for us, therefore we have to sleep in a spot where we can anticipate their arrival and run before they catch us and send us south again,” said Ismail.

He and other migrants live from begging and wait for their chance to jump the fence surrounding Ceuta.

   ”We do not have 3000 euros ($3,360) to pay smugglers for a sea crossing to Spain,” Ismail added.

He made his way back north hiding even deeper in the forests and avoiding walking in the streets by daylight.

“Our brothers who crossed to Spain are now having a good life,” said Ibrahim from Guinea Conackry, showing scars on his hand from a failed attempt to jump the fence last year.

The displacement campaign has drawn criticism from rights groups such as ASCOMS, a coalition of 27 Sub-Saharan civil society NGOs.

Authorities say they take migrants south to protect them from smugglers and prevent migrants from storming the borders with Ceuta and Melilla.

STAYING PUT

As crossing to Europe becomes ever harder, many Africans are now deciding to stay in Morocco and seek work, benefiting from a legalization policy launched by Morocco in 2013.

Over 50,000 migrants, 75% of whom are from Sub-Saharan Africa, obtained residency cards since 2013, according to official figures.

After five years in Morocco, Sonya, 35, from Cameroon, gave up on the idea of reaching Europe. She now sees in Morocco home for her and her daughter Salma, who attends a local school.

Sonya is taking a training course with a local NGO, hoping to boost her chances of finding work. But work is not easy to find in an economy where informal labor abounds and the unemployment rate stands at 10%, with one in four young people jobless.

Ahmed Skim from Morocco’s migration ministry said state agencies could help migrants find work, and some 400 were employed in the private sector. Moroccan schools received 5,545 children of migrants in 2018, while Moroccan hospitals treated 23,000 migrants.

Most migrants work in the informal sector doing low-paid jobs shunned by Moroccans, however.

The President of Tangier region, Ilyas El Omari, urged the EU to help Morocco and his region integrate migrants through training programs and investment to create jobs and avoid tension between locals and migrants.

The EU promised last year to give 140 million euros in border management aid to Morocco.

For Ismail, only Spain will do, however.

“I want to go to Europe for better living standards and better jobs. Salaries are not that good here,” he said.

“We are exhausted, but we will continue trying to get to Spain.”

($1 = 0.8923 euros)

(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Mexico’s new National Guard was created to fight crime, but now it’s in a face-off with migrants

An agent of the National Migration Institute (INM) talks to Honduran migrants after being stopped from crossing the border into the United States by members of the Mexican National Guard, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Anthony Esposito

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) – A convoy of Mexican state and municipal police trucks roared along the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez to confront cartel gunmen, past National Guardsmen patrolling the banks of the Rio Grande River for migrants trying to cross into the United States.

“We should be with them, not here. We’re soldiers,” one of three guardsmen in a green camouflage uniform grumbled to himself within earshot of a Reuters reporter. He was frustrated that orders kept him from going to back up police in the shootout with gangsters.

The National Guard is a new security force that was created by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to bring down record homicide rates. But now it has been tasked with patrolling the border to placate President Donald Trump, who has demanded Mexico stem the flow of U.S.-bound Central Americans that pass through the country or risk tariffs on Mexican goods.

If the deployment of some 21,000 National Guard troops at Mexico’s northern and southern borders can reduce the flow of migrants, Lopez Obrador will have successfully kept Trump’s tariffs at bay and averted opening up another front in the global trade war.

But using almost a third of the National Guard’s total ranks for migration duties means fewer security forces to tackle one of Mexico’s most pressing issues, spiraling violence, which last year cost a record 33,000 lives. Those numbers continued surging in the first six months of Lopez Obrador’s term in office, which began in December.

In Juarez, where drug cartel murders are especially acute, many people wish the troops were helping fight crime instead.

The city across the border from El Paso, Texas has long been synonymous with cartel warfare, which pushed the murder rate to 244 per 100,000 residents by March 2011, according to data compiled by Juarez-based advocacy group Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia.

With help from civil society groups and businesses, the city made hard-won gains to restore security, and by late 2015 the murder rate had been cut to 21 per 100,000, the group says, citing numbers from the attorney general’s office it corroborates independently.

Now, crime is climbing back towards levels last seen in the darkest days of the drug war, with homicides growing fivefold in the last three years to 107 per 100,000.

“Murders, kidnappings, extortion have taken a back seat so the Mexican army can patrol the border,’ said Juan Hernan Ortiz, director of Citizens for Better Government, a watchdog organization in Juarez that keeps tabs on the local government.

The Mexican government did not respond to requests for comment on the criticism.

The National Guard in Juarez, mostly made up of active-duty soldiers equipped with ballistic helmets, body armor and assault rifles, is identifiable by small armbands emblazoned with the letters GN, for the Spanish words for National Guard.

“We have the army dressed up as the National Guard making sure migrants don’t reach the United States while the city is headed towards a much larger crisis of violence,” said Ortiz.

   

SHOOTOUT BY THE BRIDGE

The police convoy that raced by the National Guardsmen was heading to free a 53-year-old American man kidnapped by members of the Assassin Artists cartel. A car chase through the streets of Juarez led to a shootout near the Zaragoza border bridge, said the attorney general’s office of Chihuahua state. The American was freed, four kidnappers were arrested, another was killed and two policemen were wounded.

Visibly vexed at not being able to take part in the rescue, the three guardsmen remained at their post on the lookout for migrants as one cop car after another, sirens blaring, zipped past them toward the scene of the gunfight.

Along this stretch of frontier, the Rio Grande River is parched dry. Reuters reporters saw a steady trickle of women, children and men walking along the U.S. side of the riverbed, out of the guardsmen’s jurisdiction and into the United States, where waiting U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents took them into custody.

Facing accusations the troops had been heavy-handed in their efforts to deter migrants from crossing the northern border, Lopez Obrador said on June 25 the National Guard does not have orders to detain migrants.

The guardsmen themselves, who are posted in groups at specific points along the border or patrol the frontier in military vehicles mounted with heavy weapons, say they do not detain migrants but are there to advise them not to cross into the United States.

Still, Reuters witnessed at least three adults and four children being detained as they tried to cross into the United States after Obrador made his statement.

Among them was 23-year-old Honduran Lixa Garcia, who was traveling with her two daughters aged 4 years and 10 months, when she was detained mere feet from crossing into El Paso and handed over to Mexican immigration authorities, who will decide if they are deported to Honduras.

And last week, Brigadier-General Vicente Antonio Hernandez, who heads the National Guard’s operations in Mexico’s southern states, said 20,000 migrants had been “rescued” since May 17, a euphemism for detained.

KEEPING TARIFFS AT BAY

Some business and industry leaders in Juarez said that with nearly 80% of Mexican exports destined for the United States they support the deployment of National Guard troops to the northern border if that keeps Trump’s tariff threats on ice.

“What I care about is that the agreement is met so we’re not subject to tariffs. Regardless of whether the (National Guard) is effective or not, if it is part of the agreement, they have to be there,” said Pedro Chavira, head of manufacturing industry chamber INDEX in Juarez.

Mexico struck a deal on June 7 with the United States to avert the tariffs, setting the clock ticking on a 45-day period for the Mexican government to make palpable progress in reducing the numbers of people trying to cross the U.S. border illegally. Under that deal Mexico agreed to send National Guard troops to the border.

Trump seems happy, at least for now, praising Mexico for its efforts and saying tariffs are off the table.

But, in Juarez doubts remain that containing migration is the right priority for Mexico’s newest fighting force in a city sinking deeper into lawlessness.

“That’s a political play to appease the United States and it’s not a job the National Guard should be doing,” said Isabel Sanchez Quirarte, who heads the Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia advocacy group.

“They should be doing crime prevention work,” she said.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito in Ciudad Juarez; Additional reporting by Rebekah F Ward and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City;editing by Ross Colvin)

An ever-expanding job for border agents: sensitive decisions on migrants’ fates

FILE PHOTO: Men are crowded in a room at a Border Patrol station in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas, U.S. on June 10, 2019 and released as part of a report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General on July 2, 2019. Picture pixelated at source. Office of Inspector General/DHS/Handout via REUTERS./File Photo

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – In a U.S. border patrol facility in El Paso, Texas, labels on holding cells indicate whether migrants have been selected – “yes” or “no” – for a new Trump administration program that sends asylum seekers to wait out their U.S. court hearings in Mexico.

Democratic Congresswoman Nanette Barragan, who saw the signs on Monday during a tour of the station, said a cell labeled yes was filled; there was nobody in a cell labeled no.

Such determinations, highly important in the lives of migrants who may face violence across the border, are made on a daily basis by frontline uniformed officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

Under new Trump administration policies, CBP officers increasingly are tasked with making sensitive decisions about the fate of migrants even as they struggle with the pressures of increased arrivals and heightened – and sometimes highly critical – public scrutiny.

Tensions boiled over this week, as visiting legislators including Barragan and U.S. Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez publicly denounced the conditions and practices in Texas border patrol detention facilities.

“I have never been a supporter of having CBP agents be the judge and jury for these migrants,” Barragan said in an interview, referring to the decisions on who will wait in Mexico under the new Trump administration policy known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). “The same people are apprehending them and judging whether they are eligible for a program.”

Adding to critics’ concerns about officers’ sensitivity, the investigative news organization ProPublica reported Monday (https://www.propublica.org/article/secret-border-patrol-facebook-group-agents-joke-about-migrant-deaths-post-sexist-memes) that a private Facebook group for current and former officers mocked migrant deaths and posted other derogatory comments.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, ordered an investigation into the group and said the social media activity was “disturbing & inexcusable.”

Some former CPB officials questioned the weight of responsibility placed on employees’ shoulders amid a growing crisis at the southwest border.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former policy advisor in CBP’s office of the commissioner said CBP officers and border agents are primarily law enforcement personnel. “Why are we asking border patrol to do more?” she said, adding that the strains on the agency are lowering morale. “This is not what they signed up for.”

Border apprehensions topped 132,000 in May, their highest levels in more than a decade, but declined last month as Mexico cracks down people heading north through their country.

Changing demographics are stretching resources. Instead of mostly single Mexican men trying to evade capture, officers are increasingly dealing with a surging number of Central American families – many with very young children – turning themselves in to seek asylum in the United States.

CBP said in a statement that the El Paso sector, where lawmakers visited this week, has seen a massive increase in apprehensions and that facilities there “were not designed for long-term holding.” Officers are facing “critical challenges” moving migrants out of border patrol custody quickly, the agency said.

Some Border Patrol officers complain their duties increasingly fall outside the bounds of their training – like tending to sick children and adults in their custody.

“People are coming in unvaccinated, there are outbreaks of mumps, flu, measles, we have had flesh-eating bacteria, all these various strains of diseases,” which is putting agents themselves at risk, said Joshua Wilson, a spokesman for the San Diego border patrol union.

HIGH-STAKES DECISIONS

In late January, the Trump administration began implementing the controversial MPP program in which asylum applicants can be forced to wait for their U.S. court hearings in Mexico.

As of the end of June, 16,714 migrants had been sent back to Mexico under the MPP program according to Mexican government data, often to border cities where crime rates are high and local officials say they don’t have the capacity to handle the influx. The program is expected to be extended across the entire southwest border.

Unaccompanied minors, Mexicans and people with known physical or mental health issues are supposed to be exempt. Migrants who express fear of staying in Mexico are referred to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officer who decides if they can be taken out of the program and allowed to wait in the United States. But many do not know they can make such a claim and success is rare

Some border patrol officers also are beginning to have increased authority in a separate, high-stakes decision-making process for asylum seekers.

Migrants who are allowed to stay in the United States to pursue their asylum claims are supposed to first go through a “credible fear” screening process, to determine whether their concerns about threats in their home countries are believable.

Typically that interview is conducted by specially trained USCIS asylum officers. If they pass, they can go on to fight their case in U.S. immigration court.

Under a new pilot program, 35 U.S. border patrol officers have been trained to conduct those “credible fear” interviews as well, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of USCIS told reporters last week. He said early signs from the pilot were “positive” and that officers who have conducted the interviews – under the supervision of senior asylum officers – were handling them “capably.”

Cuccinelli said the credible fear training the officers were receiving was more extensive and thorough than any other training border patrol officers have received in their careers, including active shooter drills.

Still, it adds to the crush of other duties agents and officers handle.

“Right now we are at a critical breaking point,” said Wilson from the border patrol union.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)

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

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

By Makini Brice and Jonathan Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIGRATION FLOWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress clashes over border funding as migrant emergency continues

Asylum seekers waiting in hopes of being let through the nearby U.S. port of entry line up for a meal provided by volunteers at a makeshift migrant camp by the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

(Reuters) – The U.S. House and Senate will try to resolve their conflicting versions of an emergency funding bill on Thursday to address worsening humanitarian conditions for migrant children and families on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed by an overwhelming 84-8 vote a $4.6 billion spending bill on Wednesday. The Democratic-led House of Representatives on Tuesday night tied more strings to its approval of the money, setting standards for health and nutrition of migrants in custody after reports they lacked necessities such as soap and diapers.

A photo of drowned migrants, and reports of horrendous conditions for detained children have spurred efforts to craft compromise legislation to send to U.S. President Donald Trump before Congress breaks this week for the U.S. Independence Day holiday.

Whether Trump will sign a deal is uncertain as he continues to push for spending on the kind of border security some Democratic adversaries blame for migrant deaths.

Trump has made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his administration but officials are saying they will soon run out of money for border agencies. Border crossings hit their highest level in more than a decade in May, straining resources and creating chaotic scenes at overcrowded border patrol facilities.

The need for funding has become more urgent as attorneys last week called attention to more than 300 children detained in squalid conditions at a border patrol facility in Clint, Texas.

Reporters given a short tour of the facility on Wednesday were told by Station Chief Matthew Harris that it currently has 117 children in custody, but that a month and a half ago the number peaked at almost 700 children.

Harris said the facility was designed to hold people in custody for eight to ten hours. He said the average stay now was six to ten days, with teenage mothers staying up to two weeks, and some medical cases more than a month in the hospital.

Some older teenage girls could be seen talking and laughing, while others wore distraught looks. Some teenage boys played soccer while small children sat on the floor with blankets.

Trump has made building a wall along the southern border a key goal of his administration, but government officials say they need money to keep migrant housing facilities open past month end.

Border crossings hit their highest monthly level since 2006 in May, with more than 60% of migrants either children or families, mostly from Central America.

Lawyers and human rights workers said they found sick and hungry children when they visited the border patrol facility in Clint, Texas earlier this month.

“Many had been detained for weeks, one even up to a month in really horrific conditions,” said Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The conditions of unaccompanied children crossing the border has become a key issue in the 2020 presidential race. During a debate on Wednesday night, many of the Democratic candidates called for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws and about 12 of them are set to visit a Florida facility this week.

A photo of a Salvadoran father and his toddler daughter who drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande added urgency on both sides of the aisle to reach a funding deal.

Trump criticized the House bill on Wednesday, telling Fox Business Network he wanted more money for “protection” from the drug traffickers and other criminals he says are taking advantage of the family surge to slip into the country.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan in Washington; Additional reporting by Omar Younis in Los Angeles and Julio-Cesar Chavez in El Paso, Texas; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Lisa Shumaker and Chizu Nomiyama)

After long delay, U.S. Supreme Court may act on ‘Dreamers’ immigrants

FILE PHOTO: A police officer keeps watch at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court in the coming days will have a last chance before its three-month summer break to decide whether to take up President Donald Trump’s long-stalled bid to end a program that shields from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

The Trump administration on Nov. 5 asked the conservative-majority court to throw out three lower court rulings that blocked the Republican president’s 2017 plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program implemented in 2012 by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

The justices could have acted on the appeals as early as January but did not do so, with no reason given for the delay.

In the meantime, the DACA program remains in effect despite Trump’s efforts to terminate it, part of his hard-line immigration policies that have become a hallmark of his presidency and his 2020 re-election campaign.

DACA currently protects roughly 700,000 immigrants – mostly Hispanic young adults – from deportation and provides them work permits, though not a path to citizenship. These immigrants often are called “Dreamers” based on the name of previous failed legislation intended to provide them legal status.

The justices are in the last week of their current term, which began last October, with rulings due in eight remaining cases already argued. These include closely watched disputes over the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census and whether limits can be set on partisan gerrymandering, a much-criticized practice in which state lawmakers manipulate electoral maps purely for partisan gain.

After the term’s final rulings, the justices have one final private meeting to decide on taking new cases for their next term, starting on Oct. 7. The next such meeting is not scheduled until Oct. 1.

The legal question before the Supreme Court is whether the administration properly followed a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act in Trump’s plan to rescind DACA.

Three federal district court judges have issued orders halting Trump’s move to end DACA in lawsuits challenging the move filed by a group of states, people protected by the program, rights groups and others. Trump’s administration has argued that Obama exceeded his constitutional powers when he bypassed Congress and created the program.

Since the administration launched its appeal, a second regional federal appeals court ruled against Trump. The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 17 that Trump’s rescission of DACA was unlawful.

‘DISCRIMINATORY MOTIVATION’

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 8 upheld federal judge William Alsup’s January 2018 ruling against Trump, saying the challengers provided evidence of “discriminatory motivation, including the rescission order’s disparate impact on Latinos and persons of Mexican heritage.”

During the Supreme Court’s inaction, Trump and Congress have made no progress toward reaching a deal to safeguard DACA recipients even as Democratic presidential candidates including front-runner Joe Biden pledge actions to protect the Dreamers and offer them citizenship.

If the Supreme Court takes up the matter, arguments and a ruling would come in its term that ends in June 2020, in the contentious months before the November 2020 election. If the court had agreed in January to hear it, a ruling would have been due this week, potentially a full year before a decision is now rendered.

The court could also refuse to hear the appeals or simply take no action, which would leave the lower court rulings in place and let the program remain in effect.

Trump announced his decision to rescind DACA in September 2017, planning for the Dreamers’ protections to begin phasing out in March 2018. But courts in California, New York and the District of Columbia directed the administration to continue processing renewals of existing DACA applications while the litigation over the legality of Trump’s action was resolved.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. ramps up returns of asylum seekers to Mexico, adding Cubans

FILE PHOTO: Migrants from Cuba are seen on the banks of the Rio Bravo river as they cross illegally into the United States to turn themselves in to request asylum in El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Julio-Cesar Chavez and Andrew Hay

EL PASO, TEXAS/TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – The United States is more than doubling the number of asylum seekers it returns to Mexico in one city and adding groups like Cubans as it rapidly expands a policy to make migrants wait out claims south of the border, Mexican and U.S. officials said.

The policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), is being applied to all Spanish-speaking asylum seekers, other than Mexicans, at three U.S.-Mexico border crossings, said a U.S. government official familiar with the program, who asked not to be named.

The Trump administration plans to expand the program, which faces court challenges, across the border to act as a deterrent to frivolous asylum claims during a surge in Central American migrant families.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security official said the administration was considering building temporary immigration courts along the border to process MPP returnees.

The MPP expansion follows Mexico’s agreement earlier this month to receive thousands more migrants under the program.

As of June 19, according to Mexican officials, 13,987 people had been returned to Mexico under MPP.

In its first months, the policy primarily applied to Central American migrants, but as of Monday the United States began applying it to Spanish speakers more broadly, including Cubans, said Rogelio Pinal, a municipal official in Juarez, Mexico.

Cubans, a political force in U.S. election swing state Florida, have a history of being welcomed in the United States.

Pinal said his office was told returns from El Paso to Juarez would increase to 500 per day from around 200.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said the government was “actively pursuing expansion plans across the board to include all individuals unless specifically exempted,” in MPP returns.

The U.S. official said MPP would be expanded to cities in Arizona and south Texas. Mexican official confirmed new locations would include Brownsville.

Migrant advocates have raised concerns that asylum seekers have little access to legal counsel and are vulnerable in Mexican border cities, which have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Ruben Garcia, who runs El Paso’s largest migrant shelter, said there had been a sharp fall in the number of migrants released into the United States by U.S. authorities.

Garcia said reduced migration during summer heat played a role, but tighter immigration enforcement in Mexico and the MPP program were driving forces in the drop to around 125 releases per day from up to 700 three weeks ago.

(Reportting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in El Paso and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)