Tamaulipas braces for new US-Mexico turnback policy
REYNOSA, Tamaulipas – A new policy triggered by the coronavirus (COVID-19) is now in place at the border. Migrants crossing into the U.S. are getting sent back to Mexico upon entry. The Mexican state of Tamaulipas receiving them says they're not ready to receive them.
People who cross into the U.S. through ports of entry, such as by swimming across the river, are not staying in the U.S. long. Normally, when Border Patrol encounter an immigrant, they apprehend them, take them to a station or processing center and take down data like sex, age, and country of origin. The process can take several days.
Currently, Border Patrol is not making large-scale apprehensions. Instead, Border Patrol Special Operations Supervisor Dustin Araujo says agents were equipped with personal protective equipment, such as gloves and masks, and mobile equipment that allows them to fingerprint migrants they encounter in the field. Those who are determined to be a risk to the public will be apprehended. Other procedures will stay the same.
"Just like it's always been in Border Patrol, subjects encountered who are demonstrating illness or injury are transported to a medical facility. That's still in place," said Araujo.
The majority will not be taken to stations or the central processing building.
"This will limit the amount of time of persons we have in close proximity in our Border Patrol stations," said Araujo. Which "are not equipped for the social distancing if we had a large number of people in there."
Keeping Mexican nationals out of processing centers was a request made by the Mexican government and agreed to by the U.S. government. Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations Marcelo Ebrard said last Friday, "Actually, INAMI [Mexico's immigration office] has asked American authorities no to place Mexicans in facilities, because the possibility of contagion would be greater. If you're in station for three or five days before you're actually sent back to Mexico, those repatriated, might as well just do it the same day, because then the risk of getting sick is greater."
The agreement between the two countries became official that same day, March 21. Agents began sending people back within hours of their encounter. It was a decision applied to people from countries other than Mexico, too.
"CBP will immediately return the subjects to the country they entered from. So, in this case it would be Mexico. When this isn't feasible, CBP will return the subjects to their country of origin," explained Araujo.
Accepting immigrants from other countries feels like an incongruent reality for border states like Tamaulipas, says Enrique Maciel, Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants Regional Delegate. "Mexico is not prepared. Tamaulipas is not prepared, financially speaking. Tamaulipas right now doesn't have funding dedicated to support migrants the way we did years ago when states along the border would receive it," he said.
Maciel was out at the Matamoros migrant camp housing hundreds of people turned back from the U.S. through the Migrant Protection Protocols, a program implemented July 2019. Currently, CBP officials said there are no new enrollees into that program and court hearings were rescheduled into late April.
"CBP will suspend or reduce routine queue management procedures at the limit line for those who appear to lack proper travel documents, given the CDC order, as well as those subject to Presidential Proclamations issued pursuant to INA section 212(f)."
Maciel said they were only accepting to take on migrants from other countries through that agreed protocol. Without it, Maciel said they need guidance on how to proceed. As of Wednesday, Maciel said Tamaulipas had not received a directive from Mexico's federal government. That poses logistical problems for the migrants returned to them.
"Mexico is going to have to give them a permit to allow them to stay legally in Mexico, although MPP is suspended," said Maciel.
There are also health concerns for other places where migrants can be sheltered like Casa de Migrante in Matamoros. Director Juan Antonio Sierra Vargas says it's a busy deportation month. Just repatriated Mexican nationals alone have swelled their numbers to about 100 people a day, twice the norm. Many of them are recent ICE deportees. Just Tuesday, ICE confirmed a Mexican man became the first positive case of COVID-19 while under U.S. custody in an East Coast facility.
Casa de Migrante is stressing the importance of hand-washing and proper hygiene to new arrivals; they're asking them questions about their health and keeping an eye on them for the first 12 hours of their stay to check for any possible symptoms of the virus.
If more people are sent their way, they're not going to turn them away in spite of the COVID-19 concerns. Contrarily, Sierra Vargas said it's prompting a welcome.
"It wouldn't be correct that we abandon them to their own fate, because then what would happen to these people? We would be provoking a massive outbreak because they wouldn't have a place to stay or the ability to maintain good hygiene. They'd run more risks if don't provide a place for them like Casa de Migrante.
Matamoros has only had one positive case of COVID-19, so far.