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El Paso Immigration Advocates Meet With DHS Secretary, Express Concern Over Expulsion Flights

Three masked people talk together.
Office of Congresswoman Escobar/MJ Calixtro
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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (right) and Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security Bennie Thompson (left) meet with El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar (middle) on Thursday, April 8, 2021.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited El Paso on Thursday, as part of his third trip to the U.S.-Mexico border since taking office.

“It was really primarily a listening session for him,” Congresswoman Veronica Escobar said at a press conference after the visit. “I wanted our advocates to have a seat at the table to share with the secretary what they see and live on a daily basis.”

Mayorkas did not attend the press conference, but two local advocates shared some of what they discussed in the closed-door meeting, which took place at a migrant shelter — or hospitality center — run by the non-profit Annunciation House.

“I’m very grateful that [Mayorkas] was able to come and visit one of the hospitality centers…and had the opportunity to talk very candidly about some of the pressing issues that we are concerned about here on the border,” said Annunciation House director Ruben Garcia.

A central concern is the ongoing practice of expelling migrants and asylum seekers at the border, under a public health order known as Title 42, which was issued last March. The Biden administration stopped expelling children and teens who enter the U.S. on their own, but many families and most single adults are still sent back.

About a third of the 53,000 migrant parents and children who crossed the border in March were expelled, according to government data published Thursday.

Recently, the U.S. government started flying some families with young children from South Texas to El Paso and then expelling them into Ciudad
Juárez, hundreds of miles from where they first crossed the border.

“I had the opportunity to emphasize how opposed we are to the bilateral transfer of refugee families,” Garcia said. “We’re really opposed to letting these families come in, giving them the potential idea that they’re going to be allowed to pursue their claims for asylum within the U.S., only to be put on a plane, brought to El Paso and then expelled.”

Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said she also expressed her concern about the flights to Mayorkas, explaining that families end up in Juárez “oftentimes without knowing why or even where they are.”

Rivas urged him to consider the fate of migrant children who arrive at the border with their families, in addition to children who cross on their own.

“We addressed that the treatment of unaccompanied children has greatly improved since the previous administration but also needing to speak about how we’re treating the children who are coming with their families and being expelled, and how they too are children,” she said.

Ruben Garcia said that at some point, the government will have to end Title 42, which was purportedly issued as a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In his conversation with Mayorkas, Garcia said he pointed to the wind-down of the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico,” as a model for successfully undoing a border policy.

Under MPP, asylum seekers were required to wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration court. Now, migrants who were enrolled in the program and still have active asylum cases are being allowed into the U.S., to continue their proceedings. About 140 are arriving in El Paso each day, Garcia said. Many stay briefly at an Annunciation House shelter before joining family throughout the U.S.

The wind down of MPP was “well-planned, well-organized,” Garcia told Mayorkas, with strong partners on the Mexican side of the border. “It is working very well, very orderly. I said to the Secretary, ‘I say that to you because it gives us a model, an example of how well things can be done when planned out.’”

That planning and organization will be important, he said, given how many expelled families are still waiting on the Mexican side of the border, hoping to enter the U.S.

“We have a certain buildup of Central American refugees along the entire border,” Garcia said. “We’ve had policies that, their only intention has been push, push, push. So there’s a buildup to that. I think you’re hearing the various agencies within the Department of Homeland Security saying, ‘we’re really concerned about the numbers.’ I’m one of those that would join them in saying I’m very concerned.”

It’s critical to plan the “unwinding” of Title 42 now, Garcia said.

“Now is the time to organize, to be very strategic so that we do it in an orderly way."

Secretary Mayorkas also visited the border city of McAllen on Thursday.

Mallory Falk is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Mallory at Mfalk@kera.org. You can follow Mallory on Twitter @MalloryFalk.

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