‘U.S. Welcome Patrol’: how some border agents are struggling with Biden’s policy shift

By Ted Hesson, Kristina Cooke and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Some U.S. border patrol agents are so frustrated with President Joe Biden’s more liberal border policies that they are considering early retirement, while other disgruntled colleagues are buying unofficial coins that say ‘U.S. Welcome Patrol.’

Interviews with a dozen current and former agents highlight growing dissatisfaction among some rank and file members of the agency over Biden’s swift reversal of some of former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies. Since Biden took office, border apprehensions have risen sharply.

Some of that frustration is coalescing into opposition to Biden’s pick to lead the border patrol’s parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The nominee is Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, who still needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The discontent was partly reflected in an unusual memo from the acting Border Patrol chief last month, who objected to a new directive to stop using the term ‘alien’ when referring to migrants, saying it would hurt agents’ morale.

The interviews provide an anecdotal snapshot of the mood within border patrol and, as such, do not represent the views of all agents. One agent who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity said “there are always going to be changes” between presidential administrations and that agents are “used to it.”

But any internal strife could complicate plans Magnus may have to implement and reshape border and asylum policy. Criticism from even a small number of agents could also bolster Republican efforts to use concerns over illegal immigration to rally supporters ahead of the 2022 congressional elections.

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union that represents three-quarters of the roughly 20,000 border patrol agents, sharply criticized Biden in a news conference with Republican senators on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. The union endorsed Trump in the 2020 election and still supports his restrictionist policies.

“I can confidently say that President Biden owns this crisis,” Judd said, referring to the recent spike in border crossers. “It is his fault.”

The 97-year-old border patrol agency has been whipsawed by policy changes under Republican and Democratic administrations that have required them to frequently modify their approach to migrants they encounter at the border.

But a number of the agents interviewed said they had never experienced such a dramatic pendulum swing.

Discontent in the ranks has already led some agents to consider early retirement, six of them said. Voluntary retirements within border patrol are set to outpace last year if they continue at the current rate, according to agency data.

Rosemarie Pepperdine, a border patrol agent working in Casa Grande, Arizona, is one of those who said she was considering taking early retirement.

“We have so many people coming across, and then we’re out there killing ourselves to catch them, rescue them or whatever it is, and then they’re being released,” she said. “Why even bother?”

Asked about the agents’ frustration, a Biden administration official said the president’s approach was rooted in solutions and effective management.

HOSPITAL ESCAPE

The opposition to Magnus from within the agency derives in part from an incident in 2017, when a Honduran migrant escaped from a Tucson hospital while a border agent was looking at his phone.

Magnus’ police department dispatched search teams and helicopters, police records show. After they determined the migrant had likely left the area, they called off the manhunt, according to Tucson’s assistant police chief, Kevin Hall.

The border patrol wanted to use a police station to set up a command post to aid the search. But that was rejected by police, who according to Hall felt that was unnecessary because the border patrol had their own facilities. He said police also wanted to avoid attracting pro-immigrant protesters who were congregating at the hospital.

Border patrol union officials were outraged, writing on Facebook at the time that Magnus’ police department “put politics over rule of law and oath of office.”

Magnus “refused to work with the agency that he’s going to be overseeing,” Judd, the union president, said in an interview with Reuters. “That alone, in my opinion, should be disqualification.”

Hall said he felt the police department had done everything they could to find the man. “We were all a bit surprised,” Hall said of the union’s outrage about the 2017 incident, “because the facts as we saw them were not exactly aligning with the facts as they saw them.”

Magnus declined to comment for this story.

The son of an immigrant father from Norway, Magnus, 60, has not publicly spoken about what his plan would be for CBP.

His backers in police and policy circles say he is a strong supporter of his employees and is open to a wide range of views.

Claudia Jasso, chief development officer at the Tucson-based nonprofit Amistades, said one of the first things Magnus did as head of the city’s police department was to meet with the Latino community to listen to their concerns. “He was humble and asked a lot of questions,” she said.

Gil Kerlikowske, who was CBP commissioner for three years under former President Barack Obama, said there are people within the agency who disagree with the politically outspoken union but who may not speak out.

If Magnus is confirmed to head CBP, Kerlikowske said, “empathy and compassion will be a standard.”

Many immigration advocates have been deeply critical of border patrol and say it is time for reform.

In 2019, the agency came under fire when the nonprofit news site ProPublica revealed a private Facebook group in which border patrol agents aired racist and misogynistic views. Then-acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said at the time that the posts did not reflect the views of the agency’s employees.

‘U.S. WELCOME PATROL’

Border apprehensions have been rising since Biden took office in January, reaching about 173,000 in April – the highest monthly level in more than 20 years.

The Biden administration initially struggled to process the border crossers fast enough, resulting in thousands of children being stuck in overcrowded border stations and forcing some agents to take on caretaker roles instead of patrolling for drugs and smugglers.

While the administration made changes that helped empty out the crowded stations, agents said they and their colleagues remain frustrated that many families are being released into the United States to pursue asylum cases, even as a Trump-era policy of quick expulsions at the border during the pandemic is still in place.

In at least one part of the southern border, some agents have started calling Biden ‘Let ‘Em Go Joe,’ according to a border patrol agent who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Gil Maza, a former agent who retired in March, runs a website selling an unofficial coin that refashions the U.S. Border Patrol logo to read ‘U.S. Welcome Patrol.’ Maza said he had sold 78 of the coins in four days to current and former agents.

“It sheds a little humor on the situation,” he said of the coins. “And it’s something that helps us, I guess, mentally and emotionally cope with the situation because especially right now, the situation is pretty dire out there.”

Some agents echoed a grievance aired by Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in an April 16 memo seen by Reuters that criticized the Biden administration’s directive to use the terms ‘undocumented non-citizen’ or ‘migrant’ and stop using the phrase ‘illegal alien.’

“Over the years many outside forces on both extremes of the political spectrum have intentionally, or unintentionally, politicized our agency and our mission,” Scott wrote in the memo to acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller.

The memo was first leaked to the right-wing news site Breitbart.

The Biden administration official defended the new terminology, saying that choice of words mattered and that those in custody deserved to be treated with dignity.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York, editing by Ross Colvin and Rosalba O’Brien)

UN says Europe needs more efficient mechanisms to handle migrant arrivals

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Europe could easily manage hundreds of migrants arriving on its shores if it had more predictable state-led systems to deal with such matters, the U.N.’s refugees chief said, pointing to the arrival of hundreds on Italy’s Lampedusa island at the weekend.

“The fact that over this weekend, we have witnessed again, arrivals through the central Mediterranean is further proof that … Europe needs predictable mechanisms to deal with these matters,” said Filippo Grandi, Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Yes, there were several boats coming but we’re talking about manageable numbers: through a rational and agreed mechanism this would be very manageable, in our opinion,” he told a news conference with the EU’s home affairs commissioner.

He said a system is needed for disembarkation and relocation of migrants, and push backs of would-be migrants that are happening at the external borders of the European Union should be stopped.

Grandi said he agreed with European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson that Europe needs a mechanism that balances “proper arrival arrangements with solidarity through relocation”.

“I personally think that this is the least that Europe could put in place”, he said. “We also need … a good, efficient and fair, right space, but nevertheless fair mechanism of return to their countries of those that are not recognized as refugees.”

(Reporting by John Chalmers and Marine Strauss)

At least 130 migrants feared drowned in Mediterranean as capsized boat, bodies found

MILAN (Reuters) -Merchant vessels and a charity ship searching the Mediterranean for boats carrying migrants has found 10 bodies floating near a capsized rubber boat believed to have had 130 people on board, French humanitarian organization SOS Mediterranee said.

Another wooden boat was still missing with about 40 migrants aboard, a spokesman for the group said on Friday.

The civil hotline Alarm Phone had reported three boats were in distress on Wednesday, prompting SOS Mediterranee to launch a search “in very rough seas, with up to 6-metre waves,” the non-governmental organization said in a news release issued earlier.

Three merchant vessels helped the charity’s own rescue ship Ocean Viking search for the boats in international waters northeast of the Libyan city of Tripoli.

SOS Mediterranee said merchant ship MY ROSE found three bodies in the water and an airplane from EU border agency Frontex spotted the rubber boat soon after.

When Ocean Viking arrived on the scene it did not find any survivors but there were ten bodies in the water nearby. The statement issued on Twitter carried a photograph of a capsized black rubber boat.

A spokesman for the NGO said he had no information on the third boat that Alarm Phone had said was in distress.

Libya, divided by civil conflict for years, is a major route for migrants seeking to reach Europe.

The U.N.’s International Organization for Migration said that the latest deaths would bring the tally for the central Mediterranean route to close to 500 people this year, more than triple the toll for the same period of 2020.

“States stood defiant and refused to act to save the lives of more than 100 people,” said IOM’s Safa Msehli. “Let it be clear that it is state responsibility to respond to distress calls at sea,” she added.

The U.N. agencies called for reactivating state-led search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and for a halt to returning migrants to “unsafe ports.”

The IOM said in a report at the end of March that last year more than 2,200 people perished at sea.

The true toll is probably far higher as aid groups reported at least five “invisible shipwrecks” that were never confirmed as they left no survivors.

(Reporting by Maria Pia Quaglia and Emma Farge in Geneva; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mike Collett-White)

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)