Border Patrol leader defends expulsion of migrant children, says they are given field interviews

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Human rights advocates say children were held in hotels, deported without any paper trail

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with new information on additional lawsuits filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project.)

HIDALGO, Texas (Border Report) — The Border Patrol’s second-in-command defended the expulsion of thousands of migrants, many children, during this COVID-19 pandemic, and he said they are interviewed and documented for potential asylum claims, which is contrary to a recent lawsuit by human rights advocates who allege the agency creates no paper trail on them.

U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz, during a visit to South Texas on Tuesday, told Border Report that agents in the field conduct interviews with migrants they come across to determine whether they have a fear of returning to their home countries or a fear of persecution.

However, migrant rights advocates allege in at least three recent lawsuit against the heads of the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Border Patrol that migrants are being summarily expelled without any paper trail or interview process under a little-known law being implemented during this coronavirus crisis.

U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz spoke with Border Report on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, at the Hidalgo land port in South Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“The processing is very similar to the processing we do normally but it’s done in a remote location with respect to fears or claim or persecution. All those factors are still taken into consideration. So if somebody comes to one of our officers and says they have a fear claim or terrorist fear claim or ‘I fear violence in my home country,’ then our officers will take that into consideration and process them accordingly,” Ortiz told Border Report during a 15-minute interview at the Hidalgo port of entry in South Texas. “Just because we are processing under Title 42 doesn’t mean we’re not processing under our traditional means, which is Title 8. So we have a certain percentage of the (migrant) population who will still be processed under Title 8.”

Since March, the Trump administration has used Title 42 as the basis for refusing entry of asylum-seekers at land ports of entry to limit the spread of coronavirus. The law, which had not been used for decades, allows the restriction of movement of people across U.S. borders due to potentially harmful diseases. Title 8 is part of the U.S. Code that oversees the lawful processing of asylum-seekers and migrants based on their claims, which had been the normal course of action before the pandemic.

Earlier this week, Ortiz disclosed that 8,800 unaccompanied children had been quickly expelled from the United States along the Mexico border under a pandemic-related measure that effectively ended asylum. Officials sent more than 2,200 unaccompanied children and 600 people who came in family units to their home countries in deportation flights, he said.

In July, it was reported that before their expulsions, officials held many migrant children, including toddlers in diapers, in “black box” hotels along or near the border in McAllen, Texas, El Paso, and Phoenix. After the Associated Press reported the detainment locations, officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they had discontinued the practice.

Above, media stake out a Hampton Inn & Suites in McAllen, Texas, on July 23, 2020, where the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project said the federal government held undocumented children prior to deporting and expelling them to other countries.
Below, organizers with the Texas Civil Rights Projects hold signs on July 23, 2020, urging motorists to honk and asking for phone numbers for those inside a hotel in McAllen, Texas, where they believe migrant asylum-seeker children are being held prior to expulsion from the United States. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that helps migrants on the border, has filed three lawsuits to stop the detainment of children in hotels.

A lawsuit the organization filed in July involving the holding of children at the Hampton Inn in McAllen alleged “the Title 42 Process authorizes the summary expulsion of unaccompanied minors without any procedural protections — even if the child shows no signs of having COVID-19, and even if the child is fleeing danger and seeking protection in the United States.” That lawsuit was dropped after the agency agreed to stop holding children at the McAllen hotel.

The organization has filed with the ACLU another lawsuit on behalf of all unaccompanied minor migrant children. That case is awaiting certification by a judge in Washington, D.C., that it qualifies as a class-action lawsuit. The third case involves a teen from El Salvador who was held for several days despite repeated requests to be released to the child’s parent.

Efren Olivares, racial and economic director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, is seen in his Alamo, Texas office on July 18, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Efrén Olivares, racial and economic justice program director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, told Border Report that the agency’s agreement to stop housing the children at the McAllen hotel “was a victory for these families.” But on Wednesday evening he said that many, many more children are being held for days and weeks at a time by the Department of Homeland Security, and that every migrant they have interviewed since the pandemic started has told them they were expelled without regard for any fear they have of being sent back to their home country or Mexico.

“We have interviewed numerous children who were apprehended by Border Patrol during this coronavirus pandemic who have experienced a fear of returning to their country and none of them were allowed to stay,” Olivares said. “They are expelling people using this pandemic wholesale as a way for the Trump administration to get rid of them.”

They are expelling people using this pandemic wholesale as a way for the Trump administration to get rid of them.”

Efrén Olivares, Texas Civil Rights Project

Ortiz — who was the No. 2 in charge of the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector from 2013-19 — returned to the Rio Grande Valley this week to meet with agents to garner tactical operations field knowledge to take back to agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., he said. He toured the private border wall south of Mission, Texas, and new border barriers that the federal government is constructing in the region. He also met with officials at the McAllen–Hidalgo–Reynosa International Bridge, where he said the expulsion of many migrants occurs.

He said it is important to expel migrants quickly to limit potential COVID-19 exposure to agents and to the South Texas community.

The expulsion process requires quick processing by officers out in the field so we’re not bringing these individuals into the Border Patrol stations and we really minimize the risk of contamination.”

U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz

“The Title 42 authority is CDC-granted authority to CBP to be able to expel people back to the country they last transited through so this isn’t just for unaccompanied children. This is for all individuals on the Southern and Northern borders and what this allows us to do is minimize our exposure to our workforce, as well as the community, and to be able to repatriate and expel these individuals back to Mexico,” Ortiz said.

“The expulsion process requires quick processing by officers out in the field so we’re not bringing these individuals into the Border Patrol stations and we really minimize the risk of contamination,” he said. “We do all their biographical information and then we transport them back to the ports of entry that is nearest.”

Ortiz said there is no age limit to expulsions, meaning very young children can be sent back, however he added: “We do take into consideration any exigent circumstances.” He said if a migrant tests positive for COVID-19 then they are sent to an isolation facility and not put on a flight or walked over a port of entry into Mexico.

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

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