Migrants find themselves stranded abroad by new US policy

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EL CEIBO, Guatemala (AP) – Shortly after crossing the border into South Texas with her 5-year-old daughter, Karla Leiva from Honduras found herself on a U.S. government chartered flight, learning in the air that ‘she was heading for the provincial capital of Villahermosa in southern Mexico. Authorities put her on a bus to Mexico’s southern border and on Thursday she sat on the patio of a migrant shelter in a remote border town in Guatemala.

His swift deportation across three countries was part of a very unusual partnership between the governments of the United States and Mexico that the Biden administration says will deter migrants from returning to the US border.

The U.S. government has intermittently sent Mexicans to Mexico for years to deter repeated attempts, but the thefts that began last week from Brownsville, Texas, to Villahermosa and Tapachula, near the Guatemalan border, appear to be the first times Central Americans have been airlifted. in Mexico.

The administration is launching Central American flights to southern Mexico 24 times a month, hoping to increase, according to a US official who has not been allowed to discuss the matter publicly and has spoken under cover of anonymity. Mexico has agreed to support the effort amid tensions between the administration and Central American governments and their reluctance to accept more flights from the United States.

US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas answered reporters’ questions Thursday at a press conference in Brownsville. The Mexican government has remained publicly silent.

Mayorkas said the flights were intended to deter repeated attempts by migrants deported from the United States under pandemic-related restrictions that prohibit them from seeking asylum. They come as the administration faces what it called a “serious challenge” at the border, touting figures released Thursday that show unaccompanied children were arrested a record 18,962 times in July and that migrants who came with their families were arrested 82,966 times, the second. highest ever recorded after May 2019.

U.S. authorities arrested migrants 212,672 times in July, the highest number in more than 20 years, though Mayorkas said 27% of those encounters involved migrants who had been arrested at least once in the previous year. .

Pandemic-related evictions have no legal consequences, encouraging repeated attempts.

While still delivering some migrants on flights directly to their Central American countries, the US government is now supplementing flights to southern Mexico.

Leiva, 32, from Yoro in north-central Honduras, arrived at the El Ceibo shelter on Wednesday. She said authorities in the United States or Mexico had not asked her if she feared returning to her country.

At the Mexico-Guatemala border, they were told to enter Guatemala and seek shelter. No one has registered their entry into Guatemala. They were not asked for proof of a negative COVID-19 test required of all foreigners entering Guatemala.

“Nobody told me anything. They never heard of my case and why I went to the United States, ”said Leiva. “I couldn’t tell them that they were extorting me and threatening to kidnap my little girl and take my teenage sons to join the gang. That’s why I left the country.

Mayorkas said the United States coordinates with the Mexican government on flights that include Central American nationals and ensures they comply with international law to provide humanitarian protection when warranted. He didn’t elaborate.

“If in fact they have returned and placed in the northern part of Mexico, it is too easy, too easy for them to come back and attempt illegal entry again,” he said. “And so in response to this recurrence, to deter and prevent this recurrence, we are deporting them further into Mexico, which is much more difficult to try again.”

He said the Biden administration had made changes to border policy, including allowing unaccompanied children into the country, but said people without a legal residency title would be deported under the law.

Human Rights First condemned the deportation flights in a statement Thursday.

“These deportations are illegal, inhuman and flagrant violations of US refugee law and the Refugee Convention,” said Eleanor Acer, senior director of refugee protection for the organization.

On Wednesday, five United Nations agencies, including the High Commissioner for Refugees, expressed concern over US policy and reiterated their call for the Biden administration to lift the so-called Title 42 restriction on asylum.

Mayorkas said those deported to the interior of Mexico were deported under Title 42.

The move comes after President Joe Biden abandoned many of his predecessor’s intransigent immigration policies, describing them as cruel or reckless, including one that made asylum seekers wait in Mexican border towns for court hearings. the US immigration court.

Biden also rolled back agreements with Central American countries to send asylum seekers from third countries there to make their claims heard, denying any prospect of settling in the United States.

The Biden administration has said it wants to focus on the root causes of migration from Central America. Vice President Kamala Harris led the effort, traveling to Mexico and Guatemala to discuss how the United States can help while encouraging people not to come. But these are at best medium-term solutions, while at the American border, the number of meetings between American authorities and migrants continues to increase.

Leiva had left Yoro on July 27 with her daughter and three eldest sons. Twelve days later, she and her daughter rafted across the Rio Grande to Texas with a smuggler and were quickly apprehended. She said her sons were supposed to have followed, but failed to cross.

US authorities took Leiva and Zoe to Brownsville. Two days later, they were put on the plane. On Thursday, they were both still wearing the ID bracelets that the US authorities had given them.

The orange-painted hilltop shelter filled up this week as more migrants are dropped off at the border every day. There isn’t much else in this secluded border outpost surrounded by jungle.

Leiva was still trying to figure out what had happened and what was to follow. She said she couldn’t return to Honduras and worried about the $ 3,000 she paid the smuggler.

“No one signed an eviction. I did not sign, ”she said. “They set us up. They didn’t even give me any paper. The bracelets are the only evidence that they were briefly in the United States.

Leiva’s only choice, she said, was to try heading north again. Her two sons and her eldest daughter were waiting in northern Mexico.

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AP writers Ben Fox in Washington and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

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