COLUMBUS, New Mexico (Border Report) — The U.S. government has expelled more than 147,000 migrants through the Southwest border since March under a health mandate to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Many are being sent to Mexico in two hours or less under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Title 42 order, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series examining how border communities are coping with an influx of migrants who are being expelled to Mexico upon apprehension at the border.

“Because of COVID it’s more essential than ever to see who is coming into our borders. We encounter foreign nationals from over 135 countries. We don’t know the full extent of their travel patterns, we don’t know their medical history, their human contact history,” Morgan said last week in Laredo.

The fast-track expulsions have increased almost exponentially, going from 7,079 in March to 42,071 in August alone. Migrant advocates have raised red flags saying the measure deprives deportees of due process and sends international citizens to dangerous Mexican border towns — even if they’re not from Mexico.

U.S. Border Patrol Monthly Enforcement Encounters 2020:
Title 42 Expulsions and Title 8 Apprehensions

1Enforcement Actions refers to apprehensions or inadmissibles processed under CBP’s immigration authority. Inadmissibles refers to individuals encountered at ports of entry who are seeking lawful admission into the United States but are determined to be inadmissible, individuals presenting themselves to seek humanitarian protection under our laws, and individuals who withdraw an application for admission and return to their countries of origin within a short timeframe. Apprehensions refers to the physical control or temporary detainment of a person who is not lawfully in the U.S. which may or may not result in an arrest.
2Expulsions refers to individuals encountered by USBP and OFO and expelled to the country of last transit or home country in the interest of public health under Title 42 U.S.C. 265.
(Courtesy CBP)

“Instead of having trained immigration officers or asylum judges, you have Border Patrol agents making these decisions,” said Marisa Limon Garza, deputy director of El Paso’s Hope Border Institute. “This administration is taking advantage of the pandemic and using it to further its well-known anti-immigrant agenda.”

But Morgan said the danger is real, with 11 CBP employees having died from complications related to the coronavirus and some 1,000 staff members “being active-COVID” right now.

“Just the other day we had a Border Patrol agent that conducted a rescue in a rail environment. There was an injured illegal alien that couldn’t crawl out of a grain-hopper so the agent had to be lowered and exposed to direct contact,” Morgan said. “They pulled them out together, went to the hospital and, guess what? (The agent) tested positive for COVID. […] It’s not hyperbole, it’s fact. This has to stop.”

Migrants are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents during the COVID-19 pandemic. (photo curtesy CBP)

The oft-called “express deportations” are also taxing a fragile migrant shelter system south of the border.

In the greater El Paso area, Title 42 migrants are being sent to Mexico via the Paso del Norte Bridge in Downtown El Paso, the Ysleta Port of Entry in El Paso’s Lower Valley, and Columbus, New Mexico.

The migrant is returned via the closest port of entry to the spot he or she was caught, said Matthew Dyman, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C.

However, Mexican officials say they’re receiving the largest groups of Title 42 migrants — 4,600 in the past six months — at the Columbus-Palomas port of entry.

Migrants hold on to American Dream despite crime, exhaustion

At a church-run migrant shelter at the edge of Palomas, Alejandro, a native of Cuba, goes over the latest arrival rolls.

“One-hundred. One-hundred and thirty. One-hundred and two,” he reads off. “When I started helping out here we were getting 40-50 people returned per day. Now we’re always over 100.”

Alejandro, a Cuban asylum seeker, reviews the daily registration rolls at Tierra de Oro migrant shelter in Palomas, Mexic. (photo by Julian Resendiz)

Alejandro is an asylum seeker who saw his dream of starting a new life in the United States interrupted, first by the obligatory return-to-wait-in-Mexico policy of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, then by the temporary closing of immigration courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a burden, he quickly volunteered for cleaning and security duties at the Tierra de Oro shelter. It’s become a 24-7 job since the U.S. came out with Title 42.

“We often get people who come in hurt, some more than others. They go over the wall and fall. They break a rib, they break a foot, they have blisters from walking in the desert,” he said. “We give them what medical attention we have available here, but when things are very serious, we take them to the town’s doctor.”

Most of the deportees stay at the shelter for three days or less, he said. Most are Mexicans who hitch a ride to the bus station with Grupo Beta — Mexico’s immigration enforcement agency — others leave to try to rush the border again.

Nine Cuban and Honduran families and a few individuals, himself included, hang on to the asylum dream and stay.

Leticia, a native of Centro Havana, Cuba, said she’s met good people and bad people in her months-long journey to the border. Though the shelter requires preventive measures against the coronavirus, the migrants are more worried about not being able to make it to the United States and the possibility of falling prey to criminals.

Leticia, for instance, was robbed at gunpoint inside her hotel room in southern Mexico. But the woman also has come to know the generosity of ordinary Mexicans.

“This is a long journey. It can be frustrating. Most of us have been (in transit) for a year or more. There comes a point in which you get desperate, and that’s when people try to go into the United States (illegally),” she said.

And just waiting around can be dangerous. One migrant who spoke to Border Report under condition of anonymity said drug traffickers and human smugglers are “very active” in a farming community known as Las Chepas a few miles west of Palomas.

Migrants just expelled from the United States rest inside the migrant shelter in Palomas. (Border Report photo)

“I want you to tell the people of El Paso that this region is not safe. It is dangerous. Immigrants in transit have been robbed, have been kidnapped. Drug traffickers operate here,” the migrant said. “They should not expel us through Palomas. It is not safe.”

Contacted by Border Report on Wednesday, a top law enforcement official in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico said a nearby state police garrison patrols the Palomas region. However, in order for the police to investigate crimes against migrants, it’s the migrant’s responsibility to submit a complaint, the official said.

Garza, of the Hope Border Institute said not only Palomas but also Juarez, across the border from El Paso, are dangerous places where migrants can easily become a target for criminals.

“People in Mexico have challenges; now there’s more theft and violence as people become more desperate” with the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. “We know this as a country yet we are knowingly sending people to these experiences. Right now it’s incredibly challenging to be an asylum seeker or an immigrant.”

Visit the homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.