WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has started flying Central American border-crossers deep into southern Mexico in a new attempt to prevent repeat crossings and break the momentum of the largest migration surge in at least two decades, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will send Central American adults as well as children traveling as part of family groups on flights to Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco, and potentially other cities in southern Mexico, according to officials from both countries with knowledge of the program who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the program.
U.S. authorities will rely on the emergency public health authority known as Title 42 to “expel” the migrants rather than have formal deportation proceedings. By flying the migrants to southern Mexico, U.S. and Mexican authorities believe they can reduce overcrowding in border detention facilities and shelters and relocate vulnerable groups away from dangerous Mexican border cities.
Upon arrival in southern Mexico, the migrants will be offered bus transportation back to Central America, according to one Mexican official. Migrants who claim a fear of persecution in their home countries will be afforded an opportunity to seek asylum in Mexico, the official said.
In a statement Friday, the Department of Homeland Security described the expulsion flights as a public health measure.
“As part of the United States’ mitigation efforts in response to the rise in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant, the Department of Homeland Security has begun to transport individuals expelled under Title 42 by plane to the Mexican interior,” said Eduardo Maia Silva, a department spokesman, in a statement.
“DHS continues to expel the majority of single adults and, to the extent possible, families encountered at the Southwest Border as required by CDC Order under the CDC’s Title 42 public health authority,” he said.
At least one flight carrying Central Americans to Mexico departed Thursday, a U.S. official said.
The flights appear to mark a turning point in the Biden administration’s response to soaring numbers of illegal border crossings over the past six months. An estimated 210,000 migrants were taken into custody in July, according to the latest U.S. data, including 80,000 migrant family members and a record 19,000 unaccompanied minors.
The Biden administration made no public announcement in the United States about the flights, which were first reported by Reuters. U.S. officials held a Spanish-language briefing Friday for reporters in Central America on the matter but did not respond to questions from The Washington Post about the frequency of the flights, the number of migrants they will carry and other operational details.
“It’s clear the Biden administration is pivoting, from trying to add capacity to process migrants in the United States back towards a deterrence policy that aims to move migrants as far as possible away from the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Cris Ramón, an immigration analyst and consultant in Washington. “This goes to show how much the administration is leaning into working with Mexico on deterrence policies.”
Republican and Democratic officials in South Texas have been sharply critical of the administration and have demanded immediate steps to slow the arrival of migrants who have been crossing the U.S. border in huge numbers over the past several weeks. Fox News and other networks have broadcast images of hundreds of migrants in U.S. custody waiting in the dust under border bridges, as well as video of detention facilities in South Texas dangerously crowded with migrants.
City leaders in McAllen, Texas, this week erected emergency tents in a park because church shelters are full and hotels are packed with coronavirus-positive migrants in quarantine. Some migrants released by U.S. border authorities have been sleeping in airports while awaiting flights to their destinations in the United States.
While previous administrations have sent Mexican deportees to southern Mexico in a bid to deter repeat crossing attempts, it is the first time that flights will be used to relocate Central Americans away from the border. About one-third of migrants being taken into custody by U.S. border agents are repeat crossers, nearly three times as many as in previous years, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
U.S. officials said the idea for the flights was the result of an agreement with Mexico, although one official involved in migration negotiations said the proposal was Mexico’s response to a U.S. request for tougher interior enforcement in Mexico.
Mexican officials for months have urged the Biden administration to adopt a more restrictive approach at the U.S. border and to reduce crowding and smuggling activity in Mexican border cities by sending Central Americans back to their home countries.
International agreements that protect the rights of asylum seekers generally prevent governments from sending alleged victims of persecution victims back to nations where they say they will face imminent harm. By sending the Central Americans to southern Mexico, U.S. officials can claim that asylum seekers will not be exposed to state-sponsored persecution and that vulnerable migrants will have the chance to request protection in Mexico.
Homeland Security officials last week resumed fast-track deportation flights to Central America, but officials have struggled to find eligible passengers who test negative for the coronavirus and have not stated a fear of persecution if returned home.
Migrants expelled to Mexico under Title 42 are generally not tested for the virus, and officials did not say Friday whether passengers on the flights to southern Mexico will be screened beforehand.
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The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff in Mexico City contributed to this report.