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Border & Immigration Update: Few Texas ICE Facilities Giving COVID Vaccines; Expulsions Continue

A woman holds a young girl's hand.
Dario Lopez-Mills
Associated Press
Lesdny Suyapa Castillo holds the hand of her sleeping daughter, Nataly, 8, at a park gazebo in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, Mexico Friday, March 26, 2021. Castillo, who says she worked as a frontline COVID-19 nurse in her country of Honduras, says she left for a better life with her daughter to the U.S. after the government stopped paying her salaries. She and her daughter were smuggled into the U.S. on an inflatable raft in order to seek asylum, but they were expelled back to Mexico by U.S. authorities in the night two days ago, despite the fact that her daughter is suffering from health issues.

Here’s a rundown of immigration and other news from the Texas border and beyond. Look out for a weekly recap from reporters at Texas’ public radio stations.

Few Texas ICE Detention Centers Are Administering COVID Vaccines

Immigration detention centers have been hotbeds for coronavirus outbreaks, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials do not have a clear vaccine strategy, Houston Public Media reports.

The agency said it’s up to state and local governments to vaccinate people in their detention centers, and that a limited number of detainees have been vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has administered more than 160,000 vaccine doses to people in their detention centers, in stark contrast to ICE.

Critics say ICE’s “scattershot approach” is problematic, since people's ability to get vaccinated depends on where they happen to be detained.

In Texas, the Department of Health and Human Services has shifted the responsibility to vaccinate detainees back to ICE.

The department has approved two vaccine transfers from local health departments: 130 doses to the Houston Processing Center, and 500 to another unspecified facility.

Expulsions Continue At U.S.-Mexico Border

The U.S.-Mexico border remains closed to most migrants and asylum seekers under a public health order issued at the start of the pandemic. Since March, the federal government has been flying some migrant families hundreds of miles along the border, from South Texas to El Paso, and then expelling them back into Mexico.

As KERA News reports, these daily expulsion flights have strained local shelters in Ciudad Juárez. Shelter directors are trying to ensure that parents and children don’t end up on the street, and the city recently opened a new shelter in a municipal gym to accommodate more families.

Migrants desperate to reach the U.S. are turning to smugglers, who have become more brazen and are charging higher fees as the federal government has imposed tighter border restrictions, KTEP reports.

Yet even as many families and most single adults are turned back at the border, some trans migrants and other members of “vulnerable populations” have recently been allowed to enter the U.S. and pursue asylum. According to El Paso Matters, the Biden administration has decided to make some “humanitarian exceptions” to the expulsion policy.

Families Separated Under ‘Zero Tolerance Policy’ Begin To Reunite

Four families who were separated at the southern border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy were allowed to reunite in the U.S. this week. They were the first families reunified through a task force formed soon after President Joe Biden took office.

More than 5,000 families were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border between April 2017 and June 2018, and more than a thousand remain separated. The reunification task force is working to bring back parents who were deported without their children through a process known as “humanitarian parole,” which will grant them temporary legal status in the U.S.

The families reunited this week included a mother who was separated from her then-15-year-old son at the California border in October 2017, the San Diego Union Tribune reported.

The New Yorker captured the moment another mother reunited with her sons, who were 13 and 15 when border agents separated them at a holding cell in New Mexico.

The Biden administration may also bring whole families to the U.S. to reunite with separated children, rather than just parents, NBC News reported. That could include siblings and stepparents.

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 You can follow Mallory on Twitter @MalloryFalk.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Mallory Falk covers El Paso and the border for KERA as part of The Texas Newsroom, a regional news hub linking stations across the state. She is part of the national Report for America program, which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.