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WITH POLL | Border arrests on track to break record as divide grows over states’ handling of migrants

by Dianne Solis, The Dallas Morning News | September 18, 2022 at 12:29 p.m.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has tested state powers to enforce federal immigration laws, citing a surge of migrants at the Texas-Mexico border. In one example, rather than wait for federal officials, Texas police will drop migrants off at bridges. (Juan Figueroa/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

DALLAS -- Complications for the Biden administration over immigration intensified as migrants were transported by Republican governors to cities governed by Democrats and rising migration along the southern border remains on pace to exceed a record 2 million.

On Friday, Venezuelan migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard were moved yet again to a military base on nearby Cape Cod on the Massachusetts mainland, as immigration advocates criticized what they said were fraudulent claims about destinations and which federal agency migrants should report to in the future. Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Antonio, Gustavo García-Siller, tweeted migrants were used as "pawns."


New numbers on Border Patrol arrests, through August, are expected to show a record number of arrivals at the Southwest border topping 2 million for the fiscal year that ends in September, with a sharp shift in demographics. That shift, with more Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, creates new challenges for federal, state and local officials because migrants from those nations are largely granted entry into the U.S.

Tangled diplomatic relations among multiple nations mean migrants from those three countries aren't easily returned to their homelands under a pandemic-related health order. Moreover, the migration from communist or authoritarian countries places a spotlight on Republicans who have traditionally championed those fleeing such governments.

Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre accused Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Republicans, of misleading asylum-seekers "fleeing communism."

Abbott has sent more than 11,000 migrants on state-funded buses this year, accusing the Biden administration of taking little action to "secure the border" against rising migration that "endangered" communities. Abbott, who is up for re-election, said the state of Texas will continue to send migrants north until President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris "step up and do their jobs to secure the border."

DeSantis, following Abbott's lead, sent about 50 Venezuelans on a plane to Martha's Vineyard this week. The planes came from San Antonio, Texas, to Florida.

Jean-Pierre said DeSantis "abandoned" migrants on the side of a busy road in Martha's Vineyard. The Florida governor had time to "hire a videographer to capture footage of that flight," but not to alert state officials that migrants were en route, she said.

On Thursday, Biden said, "Republicans are playing politics with human beings, using them as props. What they're doing is simply wrong. It's un-American."

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and most other Republicans are standing solidly behind the governor, saying his actions are warranted and that the impact on the state from the migrant surge is much more severe than the communities where buses and flights have been sent.

Immigrant advocates have protested the treatment of the migrants, and called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. Some have said they were misled into taking the plane trip to Massachusetts, or that migrants have been told to report to the wrong federal agency. The latter move could mean the migrants won't get crucial notices of upcoming federal immigration court hearings, triggering their removal from the U.S. in absentia, or without appearing in court to defend themselves.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

"You can treat these people as political pawns, but what we're trying to do is make sure that they're treated like human beings, who by the way, all have legal permission to be in the country," said Naomi Steinberg, vice president U.S. policy and advocacy at HIAS, a global nonprofit with Jewish origins that provides assistance to immigrants at the border and within the U.S.

Steinberg said migrants are cleared by federal immigration officials for passage into the U.S., and many will launch asylum petitions, which they have a legal right to do under U.S. and international law. Migrant transfers, by buses or planes, "is certainly not the answer for responding to a real challenge at the border."

In Del Rio, the busiest region for the Border Patrol during the last few months, state buses continue to arrive six times a week to take migrants north, said Tiffany Burrow, who leads the faith-based Val Verde Humanitarian Border Coalition. The coalition operates a day shelter in south Del Rio, helping migrants prepare for journeys with directions, free meals and new clothing.

Migrants volunteer to take free bus rides north, offered by the Abbott administration, Burrow said. All migrants had been processed by federal immigration authorities with instructions about pending federal immigration court dates before boarding the bus. Burrow has taken one of the free bus trips north with migrants to Washington, D.C.

"Not to be simplistic, but I mean, there are a lot of people coming across and they're going to their final destinations wherever that may be," said Burrow. If a free bus trip gets the migrant closer to their final destination, they take it, Burrow said.

The U.S. Border Patrol continues dropping off migrants at the day shelter, including new arrivals who crossed in Eagle Pass, a busier point of entry about an hour down the Rio Grande from Del Rio. In the last couple of weeks, the Border Patrol has released migrants in downtown El Paso, with its processing center and area shelter at capacity.

Border arrests of Venezuelans have risen quickly at the border to nearly 130,000, through July. That's nearly triple their numbers the previous year. Since 2015 more than 6 million Venezuelans have left that country to scattered places on the globe, according to R4V, a digital site for refugees and migrants connected to U.N. refugee agency.

"This makes clear when this happens that you're going to have to put all of your diplomatic might at the very highest levels to really working to find a solution to the crisis in Venezuela," said Adam Isacson, a security and migration analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.

More and more border arrests look like defacto immigration policy by country. This fiscal year, nearly 180,000 Cubans have been arrested at the southwest border, a figure that exceeds the 125,000 in the Mariel exodus in 1980 from the island nation.

Nearly 134,000 Nicaraguans have been arrested by the Border Patrol, through July of this fiscal year.

Very few have faced a swift exit under Title 42. Instead, they are processed by federal immigration authorities for later hearings in the clogged U.S. immigration courts.

Immigration officials note at least a fifth of arrests, or encounters, are by migrants who make repeat tries under Title 42, which doesn't carry legal consequences. Therefore, each arrest doesn't equal an individual migrant.

About 60% of immigrants caught by the U.S. Border Patrol come from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, according to data through July from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In July, that figure for those four countries sunk to about 50%.

Reuters reported earlier this week -- and The Dallas Morning News confirmed -- that the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been pressed to accept more migrants from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua under Title 42 policies. This happened even as the Biden administration defended in federal court its attempt to end the pandemic measure last May.

"If you come from a country where there's a strong likelihood of a strong asylum case, like one of these dictatorships, and it's a country that's hard to expel to, it's pretty much like Ellis Island now," Isacson said.


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