U.S. officials are releasing a significant number of Central American migrant families from custody to shelters in Texas for the first time in almost a year as Mexican authorities make it more difficult for the United States to send them across the border.
Two shelter managers told Reuters the U.S. Border Patrol began releasing families last week to shelters in Laredo and Brownsville along the stretch of border with Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, the busiest region for illegal immigration into the United States.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said the Border Patrol has sent around 50 to 80 families to her shelter daily since Jan. 27, rising to 150 families on Thursday.
Tamaulipas recently stopped receiving Central American families with children under the age of six expelled from Texas, a U.S. source said. Mexico’s foreign ministry confirmed “local” adjustments to policy, citing the implementation of a child protection law passed late last year.
Under a pandemic-era policy put in place by the Trump administration in early 2020, border officials were quickly expelling almost all migrants caught crossing the border including families with children.
If the restrictions on family returns were to extend to other states and be applied more broadly, U.S. officials fear it could fan already rising migration from Central America, as word spreads that not all families will be expelled.
The Biden administration is trying to undo some harsh Trump-era laws without creating a rush on the border.
“It is normal that there are adjustments at a local level, but that doesn’t mean the practice has changed or ceased,” a Mexican foreign ministry spokesman said.
Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Stephanie Malin said a steady increase in border encounters, aggravated by COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines, had caused some facilities to reach maximum, safe holding capacity.
“Whenever feasible we are seeking alternatives to detention in cases where the law allows,” she said.
U.S. data shows that through December of this fiscal year, 5,175 families were apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities between Tamaulipas and Texas, more than anywhere else on the border, but less than the same period a year earlier.
Overall, border apprehension numbers have been rising, above 70,000 in recent months and expected to reach 80,000 in January.
Pimentel said she was told by Border Patrol they needed to release some families because of capacity issues.
She welcomed the move to send fewer families to Mexico. Tamaulipas, for example, has a record of violence against migrants, including a massacre of 19 people in January. A dozen state police have been charged with the crime.
“It is not a very humane response to send them to Mexico with all of the abuses they have to deal with. We have a better capacity to handle them,” she said.
Another shelter manager, Mike Smith, director of the Holding Institute Laredo, confirmed families had started being released about a week and a half ago.
Mexico only agreed to allow the United States to turn around Central Americans caught crossing the border illegally, including families with children, under a U.S. health law called Title 42 implemented in March as the coronavirus pandemic spread.
Prior to the application of Title 42, U.S. authorities deported many migrants directly to their home countries by plane.