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Here’s What You Need To Know About Immigration At The Texas Border Under President Biden

Lee esta historia en español.

President Joe Biden has begun unwinding former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including allowing some asylum-seeking families through the Texas border as more migrants seek to enter the United States.

Some immigration advocates have praised the Biden administration’s policy changes. But the administration’s handling of migrants has also spurred criticism from both sides of the immigration debate, including from Gov. Greg Abbott.

On Wednesday, Abbott called on Biden to stop releasing migrant families arriving at the border, misleadingly tweeting that the Democratic administration is “recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities.”

But the U.S.-Mexico border remains closed to many people, including most migrants and asylum seekers, and those allowed in are currently tested for COVID-19. Here’s a rundown of what’s happening at the border and what changes Biden has made. Save this page for updates from Texas public radio reporters.

Migrant family releases

The Biden administration began releasing some asylum-seeking migrant families in the Rio Grande Valley because of policy changes in the U.S. and Mexico. This resulted in migrant families being released in cities such as McAllen and Brownsville. But in other parts of the border, including El Paso, migrant families are still sent to shelters in Mexico.

In the Rio Grande Valley, the state of Texas sent to McAllen and Brownsville thousands of COVID-19 tests for migrants released by Border Patrol after some officials raised concerns about COVID-19. Since late January, at least 108 migrants have tested positive in Brownsville, Noticias Telemundo Investiga reported. But the City of Brownsville said the rate of positives for migrants, measured at 6.3%, was lower than Cameron County’s rate of 13.8%.

Non-profit organizations like Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley are also helping take in and test migrants moving through the area before they board buses to other parts of the country as they wait to apply for asylum. Catholic Charities has booked hotels in case any migrants need to quarantine, Executive Director Sister Norma Pimentel explained.

CNN reported that the Biden administration planned to assist border communities in testing migrants through FEMA funds, but that Abbott had not yet signed off on the plan. Abbott later tweeted he would not help in a program that “makes our country a magnet of illegal immigration.”

‘Remain in Mexico’

This Trump-era policy, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases played out in U.S. immigration court. Many ended up in dangerous and squalid living conditions, in makeshift tent camps or shelters along the border. A report from Human Rights First found more than 1,500 reported cases of violence against asylum seekers in MPP.

Biden suspended “Remain in Mexico” on his first day in office and announced that no one else would be enrolled in the program.

The new administration is now allowing an estimated 25,000 asylum seekers who still have active court cases to gradually enter the U.S., out of around 70,000 who were initially placed in MPP. Some have been waiting in Mexico for up to two years.

Eligible asylum seekers are processed at three ports of entry: in Brownsville and El Paso, and in San Ysidro, California. The goal is to eventually process around 300 people per day.

Before crossing into the U.S., asylum seekers must take a COVID-19 test administered by the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. Those who test positive have to quarantine in Mexico, and they can enter the U.S. once they test negative.

In El Paso, asylum seekers spend between 24 and 96 hours at a hospitality site run by the non-profit Annunciation House, where volunteers help them contact family members or other sponsors throughout the U.S.

“Those family members will purchase bus tickets or plane tickets, and then they will be on their way,” said Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House. “Ninety nine point nine percent of everyone who will come to us will be leaving El Paso in pretty short order.”

In Brownsville, asylum seekers are released at the local bus station. Non-profit organizations like Team Brownsville and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley are on hand to provide food, clothes, and diapers and help coordinate travel plans.

Only asylum seekers with pending cases in U.S. immigration court are currently eligible to enter the U.S. Lawyers and advocates say migrants who were denied asylum while enrolled in “Remain in Mexico” or ordered deported after missing a court date should be “given a second chance to come to the United States.”

Title 42 Expulsions

In late March, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health order thateffectively closed the border to unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Citing a public health code called Title 42, immigration officials began quickly expelling migrants at the border without processing or formally deporting them. Advocates say most migrants are turned away without access to due process.

Officials initially expelled unaccompanied minors under Title 42 but the Biden administration ended the practice. It has not lifted the public health order, however, and single adults and families are still being rapidly expelled.

In January, dozens of public health experts sent a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, urging her to rescind the order, which they claim is “discriminatory and has no scientific basis as a public health measure.”

However, the order remains in effect. At a press briefing on March 1, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas urged migrants and asylum seekers to wait for the administration to “rebuild” the immigration process before coming to the border.

“It takes time to rebuild the system from scratch,” he said. “If they come — if families come, if single adults come to the border -- we are obligated to, in the service of public health — including the health of the very people who are thinking of coming — to impose the travel restrictions under the CDC’s Title 42 authorities and return them to Mexico.”

Temporary migrant facilities

To cope with a rising number of migrants arriving at the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has opened or planned new temporary facilities, many of which are called soft-sided because of their use of tents.

In February, a soft-sided facility opened at Donna in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the busiest migrant entry points. The facility was planned before Biden became president, but the Biden administration has since developed plans for more soft-sided facilities in Eagle Pass and in other areas.

Biden also reopened an influx center in Carrizo Springs for child migrants. This facility is under the federal Department of Health and Human Services. It is different from the holding cells used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CBP which spurred the outcry of “kids in cages.” HHS facilities are to provide education and better care for migrants, although past government and news reports have also documented issues in these types of facilities. The Biden administration recently directed facilities for children to temporarily reopen to pre-pandemic capacity levels due to the influx of migrants, CNN reported.

Family Residential Centers

The Biden administration plans to repurpose its Texas family residential centers in Dilley and Karnes from detention centers to sites for screening migrant children and families for COVID-19, according to multiple news reports. The San Antonio Express-News reported non-profits were informed of the transformation into “reception centers” in a call last month, and the Washington Post reported it had obtained a draft of the plans for the centers. The Biden administration aims to release screened migrants into the country within 72 hours, the Post reported.

Border travel restrictions

The federal government closed U.S. borders to all but travel deemed essential in March 2020. Only U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and foreigners crossing for trade, work, education, military or diplomatic affairs and health care may cross through border bridges. The pandemic policy has prevented Mexican shoppers and tourists from crossing the land ports at the border and spending money in border communities and other Texas cities like San Antonio. It has also cut off some families from each other or from caregivers.

Up until recently, Americans and foreigners could freely fly into the country, but in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced airline passengers would be required to present a negative test before they could board flights.

In January, Biden ordered federal agencies to quickly develop a plan for "appropriate public health measures at land ports of entry," but his administration extended the current border restrictions through March 21.

Copyright 2021 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit .

María Méndez reports for Texas Public Radio from the border city of Laredo where she covers business issues from an area that is now the nation’s top trade hub. She knows Texas well. Méndez has reported on the state’s diverse communities and tumultuous politics through internships at the Austin American-Statesman, The Texas Tribune and The Dallas Morning News. She also participated in NPR’s Next Generation Radio program while studying at the University of Texas at Austin. At UT, she wrote for The Daily Texan and helped launch diversity initiatives, including two collaborative series on undocumented and first-generation college students. One of her stories for these series won an award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She spent the last year reporting for The Dallas Morning News as a summer breaking news intern and then as a fellow in the paper’s capital bureau in Austin. She is a native of Guanajuato in Central Mexico.
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.