White House warns immigrants against travel as new Border Patrol numbers show arrivals are edging upwards

A controversial immigration policy left over from the Trump presidency has resulted in immigrants being quickly removed from the U.S. more than 450,000 times since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, and the White House is warning migrants that they should not travel to the U.S.

And the number of migrant families caught at the southern border rose to 7,260 in January from an average of about 4,500 in the first three months of this fiscal year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported on Wednesday night.

Both figures highlight the policy dilemma now before the Biden administration as it tries to reverse some of the measures made by the Trump administration. If the Biden team changes policies too quickly, it could result in a fresh spike of desperate immigrants and asylum-seekers like 2019.

“Now is not the time to come,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Wednesday news conference. “The vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately.”

For now, migrants seeking asylum will still face the same hurdles put in place by the Trump administration. About 28,000 were waiting in Mexico for their day in immigration court under former President Donald Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as Remain in Mexico. In Matamoros, across from Brownsville, about 1,000 asylum seekers have lived there for months, some for more than a year in a squalid tent camp.

Rapid expulsions

Under Title 42, the removals are known as “expulsions” and aren’t considered deportations, which would allow an immigrant to make a case to stay in the U.S. before an immigration judge. The Trump administration said the emergency measures were needed to protect the health of U.S. citizens and of the migrants who couldn’t be socially distanced in the tight confines of Border Patrol holding areas.

At the ACLU, which sued the Trump administration numerous times over its policies, attorney Lee Gelernt urged the Biden administration to make a strong pivot against rapid returns, known as expulsions under Title 42.

“While we recognize that the Biden administration has been saddled with a lot of bad policy and structural problems, it cannot continue the Trump administration practice of turning away people in danger based on illegal policies, such as the notorious and pretextual Title 42 policy.”

Critics of Title 42 have noted that while unauthorized immigrants and asylum seekers are being routinely rounded up and expelled at the border under Title 42, an emergency pandemic order named for its place in the federal code, routine trade and medical traffic has continued at U.S,-Mexico checkpoints.

Medical and human rights groups have pushed back hard on the targeted use of the measures and say people can be screened for COVID-19 like others who move across the border.

They also say Title 42′s use end-runs the due process of the U.S. immigration court system. And many people expelled by Title 42 are also believed to be immediately attempting new crossings into the U.S.

“It really shows the urgency of doing away with the policies Trump left behind and the difficulty of setting up the infrastructure for the migrants,” said Adam Isacson, a security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Infrastructure would include creating adequate processing facilities for CBP, staffing up to do the processing and expanding COVID testing, he said.

Migrant families

Although Title 42 has led to the rapid expulsion of most immigrants and asylum seekers, a small increase has been reported in the number of migrant families that are being allowed into the U.S.

Isacson has kept a steady watch on migrant families arriving along the border, traveling through Mexico toward the U.S. The number of individuals in migrant families — 7,260 in January 2021 — is far lower than in 2019 when 10,000 were coming in a week. “If they say they have gotten hundreds in the last week, that’s not that much,” Isacson said.

Overall, January showed an increase of 6 percent over the previous month when Title 42 expulsions and regular apprehensions were combined.

Advocates and authorities are concerned about the rising numbers.

This week, in Donna, near McAllen, a climate-controlled tent camp was reopened by CBP for immigrant families. The temporary tent camp expands processing capacity in the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest region for the U.S. Border Patrol.

Shelters and nonprofits in the Rio Grande Valley have seen a small increase in the number of migrant families released into the area. In Brownsville, for example, two nonprofits greet about 50 persons daily, bringing them hygiene kits and meals, after they are dropped off at a bus station there.

Nonprofits along migrant trails from Honduras to U.S. say shelters are filling up again as asylum seekers and immigrants head north because economies are suffering due to the pandemic, people are still feeling the effects of two recent hurricanes, and the new Biden administration has given them new hope that they would be welcomed in the U.S.

At the Good Neighbor Settlement House in Brownsville, staff is bracing to help more desperate families — a task complicated because of the pandemic. In the past, immigrant families were allowed to bathe and eat at their nonprofit. No longer.

“When we started noticing that McAllen got the first 150 persons [in families] we knew we had to be prepared,” said Belinda Bradford, the assistant director at the Good Neighbor Settlement House. Sighing, Bradford said migration is “unhealthy. It is causing a lot of trauma to children.”

The election of a new president friendlier to immigrants sparked a journey north for Gustavo Sanchez, the father of five young children. He left his central Mexican state of Guanajuato late last year for a job making bleachers in North Texas. He never made it. He was deported through Laredo last week, and expelled into a cartel-controlled area of northern Mexico.

He told his wife not to wire him money to get home because of cartel lookouts. Instead, he hitchhiked some 500 miles south.

Now, Sanchez would just like to get back his Mexican identification card and $200 in pesos he had with him when he was caught, he said by phone Wednesday.

“When I left [Texas immigration officials] said they didn’t have them, and said they sent them to Mexico,” Sanchez said.

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Fauci warns Thanksgiving travel could make current Covid surge worse

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease expert, warned that the travel-heavy Thanksgiving holiday could make the current surge in Covid-19 cases even worse as the nation heads into December.

Appearing on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” Sunday, Fauci said that public health officials “tried to get the word out for people, as difficult as it is, to really not have large gatherings” during the holiday due to concerns that the celebrations could exacerbate the coronavirus spread.

“What we expect, unfortunately, as we go for the next couple of weeks into December, is that we might see a surge superimposed on the surge we are already in,” he said.

“I don’t want to frighten people except to say it’s not too late at all for us to do something about this,” he added, urging Americans to be careful when they travel back home and upon arriving, and to take proven steps like social distancing and wearing masks.

It can sometimes take two weeks for infected people to develop symptoms, and asymptomatic people can spread the virus without knowing they have it. So Fauci said the “dynamics of an outbreak” show a three-to-five-week lag between serious mitigation efforts and the actual curbing of infection rates.

While the first wave of vaccinations could start in America within a matter of weeks, Fauci said that, for now, “we are going to have to make decisions as a nation, state, city and family that we are in a very difficult time, and we’re going to have to do the kinds of restrictions of things we would have liked to have done, particularly in this holiday season, because we’re entering into what’s really a precarious situation.”

Covid-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. have been accelerating in recent weeks. There have been more than 4 million cases and 35,000 deaths attributed to the virus in the month of November alone. Overall, America has had 13.3 million coronavirus cases and 267,000 deaths attributable to the virus, according to an NBC News analysis.

Despite a mid-November warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraging Americans not to travel during Thanksgiving, air travel broke pandemic records, with 6.8 million people traveling through airports in the seven days ahead of the holiday.

The already accelerating caseload, combined with the potential for another surge of cases, comes as hospitals across the country are sounding the alarm about overloading the system’s capacity.

Fauci said that he is concerned about the nation’s hospitals, noting that he received calls last night from colleagues across the country “pleading for advice” amid the “significant stresses on the hospital and health care delivery systems.”

While he explicitly said he was not calling for a national lockdown, Fauci said at the local level, Americans could “blunt” the surge’s effects on the hospital system by taking mitigation steps “short of locking down so we don’t precipitate the necessity of locking down.”

The surge in cases comes amid promising news about a coronavirus vaccine, with both public health officials and the federal government planning to begin the first wave of vaccinations in December. Fauci said that while the “exact” recommendations for scheduling groups to receive vaccinations have not been finalized, “health care workers are going to be among” those first in line for the vaccines.

He pointed to the country’s success in distributing annual flu vaccines as “the reason we should feel more confident” about the ability to send the needed vaccine across America.

“The part about 300 million doses getting shipped is going to get taken care of by people who know how to do that,” he said. “The part at the distal end, namely, getting it into people’s arms, is going to be more challenging than a regular flu season, it would be foolish to deny that. But I think it’s going to be able to get done because the local people have done that in the past. Hopefully, they’ll get the resources to help them to do that.”

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