U.S. Bishops Monitor Developments at U.S.-Mexico Border

The USCCB’s Department of Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS) continuously monitors developments at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as changes in U.S. immigration policy generally. This memorandum provides a broad overview of the current situation at the border and the Church’s most recent efforts to respond, both at the national and local levels.

While the situation as a whole is complex and multifaceted, the following overview highlights a number of key issues, including how different groups are being impacted by U.S. government policies and the continued influence of COVID-19.

The U.S. is on pace to encounter more migrants at the southern border in Fiscal Year 2021 than in any of the past twenty fiscal years as well as being on pace to exceed the highest annual arrival level of unaccompanied children.

Only the following groups are being processed into the country: (1) unaccompanied children; (2) those previously enrolled in the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) program with an active case before the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR); and (3) family units that Mexico does not have the capacity to accept. All other families and single adults are being expelled from the U.S. or refused access at ports of entry as a result of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Title 42 order (an order first issued on March 20, 2020, under the authority of Title 42 of the U.S. Code, suspending the introduction of certain persons from countries where a communicable disease exists); there are limited exceptions being made for those with “acute vulnerabilities”, though the guidelines for who qualifies have not been released.

The Administration asserts that because the U.S. asylum system and programs such as the Central American Minors Program were dismantled by the prior administration, it is unprepared to process large numbers of asylum seekers and unaccompanied children at this time. The Administration has also stated that it is developing additional legal pathways for children and others to reach the U.S.; in the meantime, it is working with the government of Mexico, the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and international organizations to establish processing centers in those countries so that individuals can be screened through them and brought to the U.S. if they qualify for relief under humanitarian laws and other authorities.

Unaccompanied children are among the particularly vulnerable population attempting to cross the border. Federal law defines an unaccompanied child as any child younger than 18 who lacks lawful immigration status in the U.S. and who is either without a parent or legal guardian in the U.S. or without a parent or legal guardian in the U.S. who is available to provide care and physical custody.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are encountering 565 unaccompanied children crossing the border on average per day, up from 313 children per day in February. The Administration has stated that it is not expelling unaccompanied children (a change in policy from the Trump Administration), but there have been unconfirmed reports of some being expelled. The Administration has predicted that up to 117,000 unaccompanied children could cross the border in 2021 (breaking the previous record of 76,020 children in 2019). About 30% of the children are likely to be Mexican children who will be returned to Mexican authorities. The others will be referred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for care and placement.

Many children are being held in CBP custody for longer than the maximum 72-hour period that is allowed by law. The Administration has said it is working on joint processing centers so that children can be placed in the care of the HHS immediately after CBP encounters them. A temporary influx facility was reactivated by HHS in Carrizo Springs, Texas; an influx facility has also been opened in Pecos, Texas. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) was tasked with opening “emergency intake sites” to be run by HHS in other locations, including the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas; a facility in Midland, Texas; Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas; Joint Base San Antonio Lackland, near San Antonio, Texas; and the San Diego Convention Center. The federal government is continuing to evaluate additional sites. In more than 80% of cases, unaccompanied children referred to ORR have a family member in the U.S.; in more than 40% of cases, that family member is a parent or legal guardian, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Once verified, these family members can serve as sponsors for unaccompanied children, allowing them to be released from government custody. In addition to public health protocols, a shortage of sponsors and foster homes is further contributing to the increased number of children in government custody, as well as the length of time it takes to verify the identity of potential sponsors.

In addition to unaccompanied children, families and single adults are also attempting to cross the border each day. Families from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are being expelled to Mexico unless Mexico does not have the capacity to accept them; families from other countries are being expelled by plane to their countries of origin. When Mexico’s capacity to accept returnees is reached, families are processed and placed in immigration proceedings in the U.S. DHS has partnered with community-based organizations to test family members and quarantine them. • With families forced to reside in Mexico, subject to dangerous and unsustainable conditions, many have sent their children to the border alone in an act of desperation; thus, the policy of only accepting unaccompanied children has, as an unintended consequence, facilitated family separation. Single Adults Single adults from Mexico and El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are being expelled to Mexico; single adults from other countries are expelled by plane to their countries of origin if Mexico does not accept them.

Because the CDC’s Title 42 order is being cited as authority for not accepting any asylum seekers at designated ports of entry, the number of unauthorized crossings has steadily increased during the past year. Of the migrants whom CBP encountered in February, it quickly expelled 72% of them—down only slightly from the end of the Trump Administration, which expelled 85% in December and 83% in January. Title 42 expulsions have dramatically impacted the recidivism rate for unauthorized entries; the percentage of migrants crossing the border unlawfully who have been apprehended before, expelled, and tried to cross again was 38% in January, up from just 7% in 2019. Expulsions under Title 42 have not been afforded the same due process protections as removals carried out in regular immigration proceedings. The CDC is supposed to conduct a review every 30 days of its Title 42 order and whether it remains necessary, but its methods and findings are not made public. Public health and medical experts have concluded that the current Title 42 order has “no scientific basis as a public health measure”.

Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico”, was first implemented by the Trump Administration in 2019. MPP was a change from the previous policy of processing asylum seekers into the U.S. (who were deemed not to be national security or public safety threats) and allowing them to remain in the U.S. while waiting for their case to be heard before the immigration court. Under MPP, asylum seekers were returned to Mexico or refused entry at designated ports along the U.S.-Mexico border. As a result, many asylum seekers were forced to live in makeshift camps unfit for habitation, without a clear legal status from Mexico, subject to abuse by Mexican authorities, lacking food and other basic necessities, and vulnerable to human trafficking and violence at the hands of cartels and other criminal entities. Moreover, many were not provided information about when or how to present themselves at a designated port of entry for their immigration court hearings, nor did they have access to the same legal services providers operating throughout the U.S. The current administration has stopped enrolling individuals in MPP and has begun the process of bringing asylum seekers enrolled in the program with active immigration cases into the U.S. Notably, this is a limited group of people, and the Administration has not provided any details regarding future phases of this process.

What drives this recent increase in migration?
• Widespread corruption, civil unrest, human rights abuses, and violence, including homicides in countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, which have the highest per-capita murder rates in the world, and Mexico, which had record homicide levels in 2020.
• The devastating impact of Hurricanes Eta and Iota on Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (e.g., most children apprehended in February originated from Honduras and Guatemala). • Worsened economic conditions as a result of COVID-19, combined with historic levels of unemployment and food insecurity.
• Termination of humanitarian assistance to Central and South American countries by the prior administration.
• Opportunistic practices of human smugglers who capitalize on political rhetoric.
• The start of spring, milder weather, and more forgiving travel conditions.

The Biden Administration’s change in tone from that of the previous administration, as well as its reversal of some policies (such as MPP), have been manipulated by those who profit off of the desperation of migrants, including human traffickers. This is true even though no significant shift has occurred regarding the processing of migrants into the U.S. because Title 42 remains in effect, except for the processing of unaccompanied children. That being said, these events will continue to occur until comprehensive reforms are achieved, including concrete measures to address or minimize the root causes of migration.

Over the past several weeks, USCCB/MRS has been working closely with Church partners, other organizations, and federal, state, and local governments to respond to the current influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, especially unaccompanied children. Actions taken thus far include the following:
1. I convened a meeting with the U.S. border bishops. They shared their experiences, and we decided to issue a joint statement with the Mexican border bishops that focuses on our shared principles. Per their request MRS has also submitted a note to Secretary Mayorkas’ office asking for a meeting to discuss the border situation.
2. In responding to this humanitarian challenge, USCCB/MRS has consistently coordinated with Catholic Charities USA, which has created a new webpage for donations to support the Church’s response: www.ccusa.online/rushaid.
3. USCCB/MRS has engaged with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships on ways in which the Church can aid in the government’s response, as well as meet the spiritual needs of those in the government’s care.
4. USCCB/MRS facilitated contact between the Diocese of Dallas and the federal government’s team in Texas. Bishop Burns and Bishop Kelly are both coordinating services for the approximately 1,800 minors in the Dallas Convention Center and are providing pastoral and faith-based services at the convention center. Catholic Charities Dallas is also supplying a number of volunteers to the center to supplement the work of HHS/ORR (in charge of the overall operation), the Red Cross (providing food services), and FEMA (assisting with logistics). What became evident early on is that trying to supply social workers to interview unaccompanied children on the ground and connect them with sponsors would take too long. Instead, the government has shifted its focus to conducting its investigations of potential sponsors remotely. Our staff at USCCB/MRS and partners may be called upon to assist with this massive undertaking. We have concerns that the intention to do this too quickly may result in home placements that are not in the best interests of children.
5. Bishop Flores of Brownsville met with members of Congress who were visiting his diocese. Additionally, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV), together with Sacred Heart Church and the City of McAllen, operates a humanitarian respite center in McAllen, Texas. The respite center is currently receiving 150 to 200 family members per day and has served over 100,000 migrants since opening in 2014. CCRGV is accepting monetary donations on its website, as well items from its Amazon wish list: www.catholiccharitiesrgv.org/Donations.aspx.
6. Bishop Seitz of El Paso has partnered with the Hope Border Institute to create the Border Refugee Assistance Fund. Recent grants have been made through the fund to provide emergency food to migrants in shelters in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, support the expansion of a COVID-19 mitigation project in several migrant shelters in Ciudad Juárez, and offer emergency medical support for migrants living without shelter who suffered monoxide poisoning during the recent winter storm. Donations for the fund are being accepted through the Diocese of El Paso’s website: www.elpasodiocese.org/border-refugee-assistance-fund.html.
7. Archbishop García-Siller of San Antonio has been in meetings with government agencies in anticipation of a facility being opened there.
8. USCCB/MRS facilitated contact between Bishop Sis of San Angelo and the Midlands, Texas, facility. He is seeking to provide pastoral care for the children there, as well as potential volunteer services.
9. Bishop Tamayo of Laredo is working with the local parish priest vis-à-vis the facilities in Carrizo Springs, Texas. Those facilities are located in a very rural area, making access more difficult.
10. USCCB/MRS was invited to tour the emergency intake facility in San Diego. USCCB/MRS recruited the director of resettlement from Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego (CCDSD) to participate. In preparation, a meeting was held with representatives from USCCB/MRS, Catholic Charities USA, CCDSD, and Catholic Charities Dallas. The delegation was led by the new director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Cindy Huang. CCDSD has established, with support from Bishop McElroy, a facility to house asylum seekers who have no place to go in the country. Most of the current occupants are Haitians. They are currently seeking donations.
11. USCCB/MRS participated in a meeting with Catholic Charities directors to discuss their perspectives from the border and interior locations where facilities may be opened up by the government. USCCB/MRS also took part in a meeting between Catholic Charities and FEMA.
12. USCCB/MRS has also been in contact with Catholic Relief Services regarding potential cooperation.
13. USCCB/MRS has been working on two proposals that would offer support to families upon arrival at their destinations in the U.S. The first is a pilot project with Catholic Charities USA and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), that would provide social casework and legal services to families in certain cities not yet determined throughout the country. CCUSA has secured a potential donor. The second project is conceptually similar and is in collaboration with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), HIAS, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

USCCB/MRS will continue to engage with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, DHS, ORR, and other federal agencies, as well as members of Congress, to ensure migrants receive the care and respect their God-given dignity requires. In overseeing these efforts, the Committee on Migration welcomes feedback from members of the assembly.

Times like these call on us to take a moral stand and show compassion in a time of humanitarian need. Faith leaders are some of the best messengers to make the moral case for welcoming the stranger, so we welcome your tweets, press conferences, and public statements of support for our immigrant neighbors.

We are seeking to identify emergency intake sites that can accommodate a minimum capacity of 500 unaccompanied minors. Examples of the resources required at these sites include:
1. Dormitory
2. Medical unit for screening, administration, observation, and isolation
3. Warehouse to stage cots, hygiene kits, and other supplies
4. Office spaces with tables, chairs, IT and case management services station
5. Feeding/catering capability
6. Laundry & clothing stations
7. Restrooms, toilets, showers (see OSHA Temporary Labor Camp Standard)
8. Fencing, various parking lots, separate entrances
9. Indoor and outdoor recreation

Examples of required staff functions include: dormitory, case, and youth management; religious, education, and medical services, and security. Additionally, examples of service contracts that are required include: facility lease, communication/internet/cable TV capability, janitorial/trash service, clothing, and 24/7 ambulance service.

Addressing the root causes of migration to the United States is incredibly critical so that children and families do not make the dangerous journey here. We are seeking to identify existing organizations operating programs in the Northern Triangle and Mexico that offer aid to women, children, and families.