Hundreds of new migrants still being expelled to Mexico as Joe Biden keeps one of Donald Trump’s controversial policies

Javier Leyva and his family cross the Paso del Norte International Bridge in El Paso on Tuesday. Migrants apprehended crossing the Rio Grande in Brownsville were flown to El Paso for processing and then deported to Ciudad Juárez. (Credit: Paul Ratje for The Texas Tribune)

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CIUDAD JUÁREZ — As he stood on the international bridge that connects this border city with El Paso Tuesday afternoon, Javier Leyva had to be told where he was.

The 30-year-old Honduran paid $6,000 to travel from his country through Mexico and eventually to the Rio Grande Valley, where he planned to seek asylum in the United States after illegally crossing the Rio Grande. Leyva said violence and economic uncertainty in Central America were the main reasons he decided to make the dangerous trek north.

Instead, he found himself 800 miles away and back in Mexico, clutching only his few belongings in one hand and his 6-year-old daughter’s palm with the other as a freak dust storm descended on the borderlands. The pair was part of a group of several dozen migrants flown to El Paso by federal officials to alleviate some of the pressure on immigration officials in other parts of the Texas-Mexico border.

“They didn’t tell us anything, they just dropped us off here. I thought I would get a permit [to stay] but they didn’t tell us anything,” he said, referring to U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Leyva was one of about 200 migrants who have been deported to Ciudad Juárez since Monday under a controversial policy started by the Trump administration — and continued under the Biden administration — that quickly returns undocumented immigrants apprehended between the ports of entry without allowing them the chance to apply for asylum. The policy, generally referred to as Title 42 restrictions after a provision in the United States Code, was announced in March of 2020 as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Although the Biden administration has scaled back several of the Trump administration’s border and immigration policies, including the construction of the border wall and the Migrant Protection Protocols, the Department of Homeland Security insisted Tuesday the border is “not open” and the Title 42 returns will continue in most circumstances.

“Families from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries are expelled to Mexico unless Mexico does not have the capacity to receive the families,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement Tuesday. “Families from countries other than Mexico or the Northern Triangle are expelled by plane to their countries of origin. Exceptions can be made when a family member has an acute vulnerability.”

Biden’s attempt to balance campaign promises to reestablish a more compassionate immigration system while keeping some Trump restrictions in place have the administration maneuvering through a public relations minefield. The president is a frequent target for Texas’ Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, who have repeatedly used the term “crisis” to describe the monthslong increases in apprehensions that began before Biden took office.

More than 100,000 people were either apprehended by or surrendered to federal immigration officials in February, including about 9,460 unaccompanied minors and more than 19,240 family units. Those are increases of more than 60% and 35%, respectively, when compared with January’s figures.

Mayorkas conceded in his Tuesday statement that apprehensions could reach their highest levels in 20 years. He also ordered FEMA to establish a presence on the border for three months to help receive and shelter unaccompanied minors after they cross the border; the agency has set up shelters in Midland and Dallas to temporarily house immigrant minors. The facilities can hold up to 700 and 2,300 people, respectively, the Washington Post reported.

“It is a humanitarian crisis, it is a national security crisis, and it is a health crisis that are all unfolding, and it is the direct result of policy mistakes and decisions made by the Biden administration,” Cruz told conservative news outlet Newsmax Tuesday evening. Cruz and Cornyn are also hosting a Senate delegation in the Rio Grande Valley next week.

Meanwhile, immigrant rights groups are also hammering Biden to end the immediate expulsions, arguing the policy was illegal under Trump and remains illegal today.

“The National Immigrant Justice Center and 100 organizations have called for these expulsions to end — as have leading public health experts and epidemiologists who found no basis in the government’s specious public health reasoning,” wrote Azadeh Erfani and Nefertari Elshiekh, two policy analysts at the NIJC. “NIJC strongly condemns these unlawful expulsions which have already sent countless migrants back to certain harm or death.”

Mexican officials are also watching the situation in hopes they won’t see a repeat of what happened in 2019 under Trump. The former president’s policies forced tens of thousands of migrants back into Mexico, which filled shelters in border cities like Ciudad Juárez and stressed social service agencies who help migrants.

As he stood with his team at the foot of the international bridge on Tuesday, Enrique Valenzuela, director of Ciudad Juárez’s Centro de Atención a Migrantes, a migrant transition facility, said shelter space is a major concern again.

“It’s fair to say they are about to be crowded so we have to develop capacity,” he said. When asked what he tells migrants who want to know when they’ll be let into the United States, he said he has to be honest.

“The only thing I can say is that we have no idea. It could be 15 days or 15 months,” he said. “But they have to know it’s a health policy and not a migrant policy.”

For Jennifer, a 27-year old Salvadoran who came to the border hoping to be reunited with her children in Atlanta, it’s back to square one. She had tried to cross into the U.S. through Ciudad Juárez before, but was sent back. She thought she’d have better luck joining other migrants crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley under the Biden administration, but found herself back in Mexico with the others after the U.S. government flew them to Ciudad Juárez Tuesday.

“I do still have some faith but more than anything I am worried about my kids, they need me,” she said. “I don’t know how they can’t understand that parents need to be with their kids.”

Leyva, the asylum seeker from Honduras, said his mind was made up just minutes after being returned to Mexico.

“I’d rather they just send me back to my country,” he said. “I don’t know this city and I don’t want to be here, especially with my daughter.”