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  • Central American migrants supporting Joe Biden´s triumph in the US election prepare a Trump puppet to protest his Government in the border town of Matamoros (México). This group has been confined to a border camp near the Bravo river, for over a year, awaiting legal entry into the US.

    Central American migrants supporting Joe Biden´s triumph in the US election prepare a Trump puppet to protest his Government in the border town of Matamoros (México). This group has been confined to a border camp near the Bravo river, for over a year, awaiting legal entry into the US. | Photo: EFE

Published 12 November 2020
Opinion

A change in immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border to reduce the spread of Covid 19 from illegal immigrants is having a beneficial economic impact on human traffickers.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in March announced that it would begin to quickly expel nearly all migrants caught at the border under the authority of an existing federal public health act, known as Title 42, saying the move was necessary to prevent coronavirus from spreading into the United States.

But the order appears to be having unintended effects.

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Previously, Central American migrants apprehended at the border would be processed in the U.S. immigration system and would often be held for weeks, if not months, before being deported back to their home country.

Martin Salgado, a resident in the city of San Luis Rio Colorado on Mexico's border with the United States, runs a migrant shelter and is witnessing increasing numbers of people cycling through the borders. In recent months, the United States began expelling almost all migrants caught on the Mexican border rather than returning them to their homelands. Now, human smugglers often attempt to get migrants back across the border the very same day they are deported, he said.

The policy has led to an increase in repeated border crossing attempts, data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows. And it’s benefiting the criminal networks that move people from Central America to the United States, according to interviews with more than a dozen migration experts, shelter directors, immigrant advocates, and human smugglers.

That is because U.S. authorities are depositing the migrants on the border rather than returning them home, which allows smugglers to eliminate some of the costs of repeat border crossings, said three smugglers working with transnational networks. 

Not all migrants travel with smugglers, but even those braving the dangerous journey alone or in small groups often turn to coyotes at the border for the final stretch of the trip. Since they too are now being returned at the Mexican border when caught, they now often pay for a second or third try, in another boon for the smuggling networks, said migrant experts and a guide tied to a smuggling network in the Sonora region.

U.S. border officials say the program, which has resulted in migrants being returned in an average of fewer than two hours, is crucial for protecting U.S. agents, health care workers, and the general public from COVID-19 by avoiding the potential spread of coronavirus if migrants were apprehended, processed, and then sent to the U.S. detention centers, as per previous policy.

“It would take just a small number of individuals with COVID-19 to infect a large number of detainees and CBP personnel and potentially overwhelm local healthcare systems along the border,” the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a statement.

Joe Biden, proclaimed by the media as the new U.S. president following the Nov. 3 election, has not laid out specific plans about the Title 42 program. In August, a senior advisor to the Biden campaign told Reuters that Biden would look to public health officials for guidance on pandemic-related border closures.

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