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Biden administration considers forcing migrant families to remain in Texas

The Biden administration is considering forcing some migrant families who enter the country without authorization to remain near the border in Texas while awaiting asylum screening, effectively limiting their ability to travel within the United States, three U.S. officials told The Times.

Administration officials have been considering the idea as a way to stem recent increases in the numbers of migrant families crossing the southern border, which reportedly reached an all-time high last month. Supporters of the remain-in-Texas idea, which has yet to be finalized, hope that it would help the administration advance its goals of quickly deporting families who fail initial asylum screenings and deterring other families from crossing in the first place.

But the proposal, which recalls President Reagan’s efforts to limit asylum seekers’ movements in the late 1980s, is likely to draw fierce opposition from immigrant rights groups and border-state officials. Since 2022, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has bused thousands of migrants out of his state to Democrat-run cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.

The Biden plan would force certain migrant families to remain in Texas — or possibly other border states — by tracking their location through GPS monitoring devices, such as ankle bracelets, according to the three officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. The families would be put through an asylum screening process to determine whether they could stay in the U.S. and proceed with their claims. Officials have discussed working with local organizations to provide housing for the families.

If the families failed their initial screenings, they’d be easier to deport because they’d be close to the border.

Migrant families are generally harder to arrest in the interior of the U.S. because of the complicated logistical planning needed to apprehend children and their parents. Migrant family deportations are historically lower than those of single adults seeking asylum in the U.S.

Department of Homeland Security officials have discussed targeting Central American families in the program, because those are countries where the U.S. can deport significant numbers of people.

“DHS continuously holds policy and operational discussions on how to leverage our authorities to ensure a fair, humane and effective immigration process that efficiently removes those without a lawful basis to stay in the country,” a department spokesperson said.

If implemented, the plan would mark the latest expansion of a Biden administration program known as Family Expedited Removal Management, which imposes curfews and GPS monitoring on migrant families traveling to large cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington.

Administration officials had hoped that the FERM program, together with videos and news releases highlighting families being deported, would help deter additional families from entering the U.S. without authorization.

In July, however, Border Patrol encountered more than 60,000 families crossing the border — making up almost half the number of those who crossed the southern border that month. Border Patrol has yet to release that number for August, but the Washington Post reported last week that it was more than 91,000, an all-time record.

Families have accounted for a large portion of the overall increase in crossings since May, when administration officials thought that Biden’s new limits on asylum had finally made a dent in border-crossing numbers.

The Biden administration’s treatment of migrant families has come under criticism from immigrant advocates, who say the families do not have reasonable access to attorneys or time to prepare their asylum cases.

“Families are rushed to removal within weeks of their arrival to the United States, without a fair opportunity to present their cases, and often without understanding the proceedings unfolding around them,” the National Immigrant Justice Center wrote in a policy brief last week blasting the curfew program.

Robyn Barnard, director of refugee advocacy at Human Rights First, said the remain-in-Texas proposal was misguided.

“People should not be punished for their manner of entry to seek asylum,” she said.

U.S. officials have long implored migrants to enter the U.S. only via legal pathways. Those include setting up appointments at a port of entry or applying for a program that allows certain migrants to come to the U.S. if they have a financial sponsor and can pass security checks.

“People who do not use available lawful pathways to enter the U.S. now face tougher consequences, including a minimum five-year ban on reentry and potential criminal prosecution,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in May.

But the administration has thus far refused to revive the Trump- and Obama-era practice of detaining migrant families at the border.

“We have no plan to detain families,” Mayorkas said in April. “As I mentioned, we will be employing alternatives to detention, including some innovations in that regard, and we will on a case-by-case basis use enhanced alternatives to detention as warranted.”

The idea of forcing migrant families to stay near the border hasn’t been tried in decades, said Yael Schacher, director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International and a historian of U.S. immigration.

“There hasn’t been an attempt to force asylum-seeking families to remain in border towns for 35 years,” she said.

In the late 1980s, the Reagan administration forced thousands of migrants to apply for asylum near where they crossed in south Texas, and receive their decision there as well. Officials were clear at the time that the policy was intended to deter families from crossing.

“At first we may see a slightly higher number of aliens in the area, but that will soon taper off as soon as word gets back to Central America,” an immigration official told the Associated Press at the time.

The migrants lived in church shelters or set up camps in parking lots or abandoned buildings while awaiting their initial asylum interviews. “Clearly these people are experiencing difficulty and hardship,” a visiting United Nations official told the Associated Press.

Local officials, incensed, even tried to evict federal immigration officials from the office they were using to process asylum claims. At one point, a Texas state judge blocked federal officials from operating their office in the south Texas city of Harlingen.

In early 1989, a federal judge ordered immigration officials to let migrants leave south Texas while he decided how to rule on the new policy, and the camps began to empty.

As the migrants waited to be processed so that they could head elsewhere in the U.S., Texans stepped in to feed them. “I figure we’ve fed four or five hundred,” Dolores Muniz, a volunteer, told The Times’ J. Michael Kennedy in January 1989. “It’s our obligation as Americans. This country was founded by immigrants. The Statue of Liberty says we should bring them in.”

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