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‘America is back,’ migrants are forgotten

Texas+has+been+facing+a+refugee+crisis+along+its+southern+border+but+it+isnt+what+you+might+expect.
Photo by Graphic by Gabrielle Shreeve

Texas has been facing a refugee crisis along its southern border but it isn’t what you might expect.

Following bipartisan condemnation of U.S. actions in Del Rio, advocates and progressive Democrats push immediate immigration reform in the face of a December federal debt default.

The small border town of Del Rio faced an overwhelming crisis this September, when a surge of nearly 30,000 migrants sought refuge, work and a more welcoming United States, according to The Texas Tribune. President Joe Biden’s White House still positions itself as different from the notably anti-immigration administration that preceded it, according to Sept. 21 remarks by White House press secretary Jen Psaki. Yet, the aggressive responses by the U.S. Border Patrol in Del Rio — and the tenuous fate of moderate reform in Congress’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill — exemplify both the continuities and ruptures in the long history of U.S. immigration policy toward the region, assistant professor of international relations at the Bush School, Aileen Teague, Ph.D., said. Teague is a historian of U.S.-Latin America relations, U.S. militarization and national security and how it has affected Latin America. 

“These migrants were mostly Haitians, but also from Venezuela, Honduras and a few other countries,” Teague said. “It was becoming increasingly untenable for many of these migrants to continue living [in South America]. Many of them had fled Haiti following the 2010 earthquakes and, as we know, this year has been another really rough year in Haiti with respect to political instability.”

Migration to the U.S. border has been cyclical for decades, Teague said, due to a lack of development in countries to the United States’ south and the increasing frequency of natural disasters. Yet, in the 2021 fiscal year, U.S. authorities detained more than 1.7 million migrants at the Mexican border — the most arrests by Border Patrol since 1986 — according to unpublished U.S. Customs and Border Protection data obtained by The Washington Post.

“If these migrants are going to be coming then there needs to be more comprehensive immigration reform,” Teague said. “Latin America is only in the news cyclically … and the need for it just continues to come up when we have these moments.”

Since the budget reconciliation process began in February, Democrats’ immigration reform plans have been struck down twice by Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, according to the Associated Press. Under Senate chamber rules, the Parliamentarian can dictate if a policy is appropriate for reconciliation — a unique bill that only requires 51 votes in the chamber to pass, instead of the typical two-thirds majority necessary to overcome filibusters.

“Plan A would have been a legalization program, which would give people green cards with the ability to naturalize, assuming they meet all of the requirements for naturalization to become citizens,” Huyen Pham, professor of law at the A&M School of Law, said.

This first proposal would have been granted to as many as 8 million immigrants, according to The Hill. The second — “Plan B” — would have covered around 6.7 million people.

“Plan B, would help fewer people, but it would move what’s called a registry date and would allow people who have entered before a certain time period to get green cards and then eventually naturalize,” Pham said. “So Plan B differed from Plan A because it would say, ‘Yes, we’ll give [migrants] legal status, but only to people who’ve been here for a certain number of years.’”

As the Dec. 3 deadline for federal debt default looms, the third proposal under consideration fails to reach the Democrats’ goal of an explicit path to permanent residency or citizenship, according to AP News. Instead, “Plan C” gives migrants who have resided in the U.S. since 2011 a five-year parole status, which could be renewed for an additional five years.

“Kind of like what [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] beneficiaries have, parole provides some protection against deportation, the ability to work and perhaps the ability to travel,” Pham said. “Plan C, by the way, is just kicking the can down the road because eventually these folks will not [become citizens] depending on the parameters of the parole status.”

Parole for migrants is often used for humanitarian reasons in the U.S., Pham said. Under the direction of A&M law professors within the Immigrant Rights Clinic, Madeleine Hamparian, Class of 2023, helped a client obtain the temporary status.

“Our clinic helped a Mexican father who didn’t have permission to be in the United States, but his son was going through some pretty major surgery in the North Texas area,” Pham said. “So our clinic was able to get him paroled into the U.S., and he was allowed to enter and spend some time with his family. And also, he donated some tissue that was helpful to his son during the surgery. But, he wasn’t officially admitted.”

Despite stalls in legislative reform, Biden’s policies have taken general differences from his predecessor, associate professor of sociology Nancy Plankey-Videla said. 

Plankey-Videla is also a founding member of the Brazos Interfaith Immigration Network, or BIIN, which provides free citizenship classes, free English as a Second Language classes for beginners and “IRA” — information, referrals and assistance. Through BIIN, she said she has worked with a number of local immigrants in Brazos County.

“Often there’s the talking point that giving people asylum is just a way to let them in the country, then they disappear and never come back,” Plankey-Videla said. “But 92 percent of people come back for their full asylum cases. They do not escape and hide into the night, they come back, they see their cases all the way through. And their cases tend to be serious cases of asylum.”

Of the estimated 8,600 migrants — or more — who made camp in Del Rio, one official put the number of migrants released into the U.S. in the thousands, according to POLITICO. These migrants were ordered to appear before an immigration office within 60 days to be processed and interviewed for asylum.

“Now, how many [Border Patrol] planned to allow in, and on what grounds? I think that was very much in flux and unclear,” Pham said. “And I don’t know that the numbers were significant, but that is obviously a big change from what the Trump administration had done.”

From his inauguration to Nov. 2020, the Trump administration reduced the number of green cards granted abroad by at least 418,453 and the number of non‐​immigrant visas by at least 11,178,668, according to the Cato Institute.

Of the deportations in Del Rio and more broadly under Biden, the president has included more legal priorities for enforcement than his predecessor, Plankey-Videla said. Priorities put the focus of deportation efforts on the unauthorized immigrants and permanent residents who have committed serious crimes over others, such as families. 

“There have been some efforts by the Biden administration to try to direct aid to these Haitians as they’re being deported and arrive in Haiti,” Pham said. “$5.5 million to these repatriated Haitian immigrants through IOM, the International Organization for Migration. So that’s different, right? But in essence, the policy of deporting these Haitians and not allowing them to apply for asylum is pretty consistent with what the Trump administration was doing.”

Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Program — also referred to as MPP and the “Remain in Mexico” policy — are among a number of Trump-era policies the Biden administration has continued at the border, Pham said. 

“The [Migrant Protection Program] protocols … required people to apply for asylum from Mexico, which made it more dangerous and more difficult,” Pham said. “The administration tried to revoke [the protocols], but then were challenged in court and, oddly enough, were prevented from revoking those policies.”

In August, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of Texas ordered the White House to restart the MPP “for ending the program improperly,” according to The Washington Post. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision, and the White House has since said it is “prepared” to reinstate the MPP.

Interest groups such as Human Rights Watch criticized the program when first introduced in 2019, arguing it put vulnerable migrants at risk of harm and illness in the cities they waited in, according to The Guardian

Human Rights Watch published a report in Jan. 2021 based upon 52 interviews with those directly placed in the MPP, as well as 40 interviews with “lawyers, health professionals, shelter staff and volunteers and others working with migrant families,” according to the report. Interviews described sexual assault, abductions, robbery and other crimes against the migrants forced to remain in Mexico, according to The Guardian.

“The Biden administration also invoked Title 42, which is a provision that the Trump administration invoked in refusing entry to many Mexicans and Central Americans who tried to present themselves for asylum,” Pham said.

Title 42 was a “little-known” provision of U.S. health law employed for the stated purpose of limiting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American Immigration Council, or AIC. Notably, Title 42 does not allow migrants to apply for asylum to avoid expulsion. Border Patrol has continued using the provision under Biden, carrying out more than 1.13 million expulsions through the end of August 2021, according to the AIC.

From April 2020 through August 2021, 60.5 percent of encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border led to expulsion. 

Harold Koh, the former State Department senior legal adviser, resigned from his position in the Biden administration over the use of Title 42 and the “Remain-in-Mexico” policy, Pham said.

“News sources suggest as many as 4,600 [Haitian immigrants at the southern border] have been returned to Haiti since Sept. 19, 2021,” Koh said in a legal memo obtained by POLITICO. “Title 42 permits customs officers … to identify persons who should be excepted from expulsion based on the totality of the circumstances, including consideration of significant law enforcement, office and public safety, humanitarian and public health interests.
“But if Haiti is undeniably a humanitarian disaster area, the question should be: at this moment, why is this administration returning Haitians at all?”

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