With COVID-19 travel restrictions still in place, migrant expulsions will continue at border

Immigration

ICE agents are seen from under the belly of a charter airline loading shackled migrants on Feb. 14, 2020, onto a deportation flight at Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport in South Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — New directives from the Biden administration that halt the deportation of some migrants won’t apply to those on the Southwest border as long as Title 42 travel restrictions — imposed by the Trump administration to stop the spread of COVID-19 — are still the law of the land. That means that migrants apprehended crossing the border illegally or at ports without proper papers are still being quickly expelled, Border Report has learned.

In a Wednesday memo to the leaders of top Department of Homeland Security agencies, new DHS Acting Secretary David Pekoske announced a “100-day pause on certain removals to enable focusing the Department’s resources where they are most needed.”

The order is to take effect no later than Friday. And many took that to mean an immediate halt to deportations of migrants at the onset of President Joe Biden’s term. But that’s not the case.

Unless Biden rescinds the Title 42 travel ban, expulsions will continue for at least another month, immigration experts tell Border Report.

An ICE Air charter flight via Swift Air is seen on May 6, 2020, departing from Brownsville-South Padre International Airport. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Furthermore, the Southwest border has been deemed a high-priority enforcement region, according to the memo that Pekoske sent on his first day on the job to the heads of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This means that the border region is exempt from changes to removal orders.

“Due to limited resources, DHS cannot respond to all immigration violations or remove all persons unlawfully in the United States. Rather, DHS must implement civil immigration enforcement based on sensible priorities and changing circumstances. DHS’s civil immigration enforcement priorities are protecting national security, border security, and public safety,” the memo says.

Migrants apprehended at the border or ports of entry while trying to unlawfully enter the United States on or after Nov. 1, 2020, or who were not physically present in the United States before Nov. 1, are subject to removal, according to the memo.

Under Title 42, removals mean immediate expulsion, which Border Patrol and CBP have said their officers and agents can quickly execute, oftentimes in under two hours from initial arrest or within a few hours if they’re placing migrants on an ICE Air expulsion flight.

“It hasn’t changed a damn thing but if Title 42 is lifted it will make a pretty big difference,” said Joshua Rubin, a founder of the group Witness at the Border, which monitors ICE deportation and expulsion flights throughout the United States.

Sarnata Reynods is director of policy at the think-tank Immigration Hub. (Courtesy Photo)

“It doesn’t really change the border right now,” said Sarnata Reynolds, director of policy at the D.C.-based think tank Immigration Hub. “The border is basically carved out of the moratorium, as well, so for the border itself it’s hard to know what will change.”

The other two exemptions from changes to removal orders are related to national security and public safety. According to the memo, noncitizens suspected or with ties to terrorism or espionage, and those incarcerated within federal, state and local prisons who are released after Jan. 20 on convictions of an “aggravated felony,” also could be removed from the United States.

Immigration experts who have scrutinized the memo concluded that the new removal order will mostly result in fewer migrants being deported from cities in the interior of the United States. It also gives border enforcement agents more discretion during apprehensions.

The Biden administration has signaled that more specific guidelines will be released after Jan. 29 and could better spell out new deportation policies.

In the interim, they believe that the department, itself, is taking a pause to determine what new measures the new administration should put into place and is taking some time to study border security, public safety and establish new best practices by border agents in the field.

Joshua Rubin, of the group Witness at the Border, watches an ICE Air flight loaded with migrants for expulsion at Brownsville-South Padre International Airport on Feb. 7, 2020. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“It gives discretion to the agents to figure this out. But what we can hope for is when the discretion is used it can be looked at and corrected if done improperly,” Rubin said from New York.

Thomas Cartwright, a retired financial services executive from Columbus, Ohio, who advocates with Rubin’s group, said since travel restrictions were implemented on March 20, 2020, there have been over 372,000 expulsions. Many are by ICE Air Operations, the air transportation arm of ICE.

Currently, the travel ban is in place until Feb. 21, but Biden could order the Centers for Disease Control to lift that at any time.

Rubin said an expulsion flight left South Texas on Thursday morning from Brownsville-South Padre International Airport to Managua, Nicaragua.

Cartwright and Rubin both praised Biden’s first day in office and the immigration reforms he proposed as well as executive orders that halted construction of the border wall and the Migrant Protection Protocols also known as “Remain in Mexico.” If passed, the massive immigration bill that Biden sent to Congress would provide a pathway to citizenship for over 11 million migrants as well as “Dreamers.”

But they urged that Biden take a hard look at Title 42 and how it is preventing asylum-seekers from entering the country.

“There is no reason that they cant find a way to undo Title 42 and allow people to come and seek protection in the United States,” Cartwright said. “It will take resources and it takes work but it’s possible to do it safely.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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The mission of BorderReport.com is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.