El Paso leaders, stakeholders prepare for changes to asylum policy

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Officials consider proper care of migrants once Biden makes good on vow to reopen doors to refugees

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – El Paso city and county leaders are holding biweekly meetings with stakeholders in anticipation of President Joe Biden making good on his vow to reopen doors for refugees.

“We are prepared for it,” El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said on Monday. “We actually have a meeting with the county judge, Bishop (Mark J.) Seitz, the Mexican consul, the American consul. It’s a meeting about how we’re going to handle any issues that come up and that’s the biggest issue we talk about […] to make sure that we’re prepared.”

El Paso migrant relief agencies were stretched beyond their limits in late 2018, early 2019 due to the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers from Central America and elsewhere. The border-wide phenomenon prompted the Trump administration to make refugees wait in Mexico for months and years in some cases, and to strong-arm Mexico into dispersing migrant caravans at the border with Guatemala.

Leeser said El Paso will be prepared this time.

“It’s going to be totally different from what we saw a year and a half ago,” the mayor said. “As things change, we’ll continue to make sure we talk with everyone that needs to be involved.”

A reported change in enforcement policy in South Texas has led to speculation that migrant families could again be allowed to enter the United States while their petitions are evaluated.

But Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, cautioned that nothing has changed.

“The president is taking positive steps by signaling he’s rolling back Remain in Mexico. But the reality is that here, on our border, nothing has changed for the moment,” Corbett said. “Asylum-seekers are still stuck in Juarez (Mexico) and those who are arriving at the border still don’t have access to asylum. Hopefully, that will change soon.”

Remain in Mexico, or the Migrant Protection Protocols program, is a Trump-era rule forcing asylum seekers to stay on the other side of the border until called to hearings in U.S. immigration court.

Corbett said the situation in South Texas is an isolated case prompted by unique circumstances and “not a reflection of changes in policy at the national level from DHS or the White House.”

But Biden has promised to restore asylum and El Paso stakeholders are preparing for change. So, since November they’ve been meeting with each other and with local government officials and international agencies.

“We believe that our community has a lot of experience in the reception of asylum-seekers and that we will be able to do that despite the challenges of the pandemic,” Corbett said.

COVID-19 screenings, detention facilities part of talks

Leeser said the biweekly meetings include reports from “people who are actually seeing what is going on and where the movement is.” He said those meetings are likely to increase in frequency and include COVID-19 considerations and testing “and to make sure how we protect the citizens of El Paso.”

Meantime, Department of Homeland Security agencies in the region continue to deport migrants under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s’ Title 42 rule.

“CBP has seen a steady increase in border encounters since April 2020, which, aggravated by COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines, has caused some facilities to reach maximum safe holding capacity,” the agency said in a statement. “Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren’t possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a ‘notice to appear,’ and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing.”

While the Administration reviews existing immigration processes and balances them against the ongoing pandemic, CBP said it would avoid keeping individuals in a congregate setting.

“The majority of the people we encounter are being returned to Mexico promptly under Title 42. (Unaccompanied minors) are generally in our custody for about 16 hours before being remanded to the Office of Refugee Resettlement,” the CBP statement said.

El Paso has several migrant holding faclities. The Centralized Processing Center at the U.S. Border Patrol Station on Hondo Pass in Northeast El Paso has a capacity of 1,040.

The El Paso Processing Center as of Friday held 360 migrants while the Otero County Processing Center had 165 detainees, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) . The Torrance County Detention facility held 13 people, for a total of 538 current detainees in the region.

Federal immigration facilities are operating under CDC social distancing guidelines. 

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