Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, discusses the status of immigration and border policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Julián Aguilar, immigration and border security reporter at the Texas Tribune, discusses best practices for reporting on this topic. Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, hosts the webinar.
Learn more about CFR's Local Journalists Initiative.
FASKIANOS: Thanks, Maureen. And good afternoon, and good morning to those of you on the West Coast. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalist Webinar. Today we are going to be talking about immigration, border policy, and best practices for reporting on these subjects with our speakers, Theresa Cardinal Brown and Julián Aguilar, and host Carla Anne Robbins. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As you know, CFR is an independent and nonpartisan organization and think tank focusing on U.S. foreign policy.
This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalists Initiative, created to help you connect the local issues you cover in your communities to global dynamics. We have everything from CFR resources and expertise on international issues, and we are providing a forum for sharing best practices. This is very much a challenging time in our country, as we’ve seen over the past week, and few months. We thank you for taking the time to join us today. The webinar is on the record and the video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact at CFR.org/localjournalists. We’ve shared the full bios of our speakers and host prior to the call, so I’m just going to spotlight a few things.
Theresa Cardinal Brown is director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She previously led her own consulting firm, Cardinal North Strategies. She was a director of immigration and border policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and has held roles with the American Immigration Lawyers Association and immigration law practices in Washington, DC.
Julián Aguilar reports on politics and border affairs with the Texas Tribune, a member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan newsroom. His reporting focuses on immigration reform and enforcement, voter ID, international trade, border security, and the drug trade, as well as politics in Texas and Mexico. He has written and reported for numerous outlets in Texas, including the Fort Worth Weekly, the Laredo Morning Times, and Rio Grande Guardian.
And finally, Carla Anne Robbins is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR. She is faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. Previously, she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal.
So welcome to you both, Theresa and Julián. Thank you very much for being with us today. And, Carla, I’m going to turn it over to you to have a discussion, and then we will open it up to the group for questions and comments.
ROBBINS: Thank you so much, Irina. Thank you, Julián and Theresa, and thank you to all the journalists who are with us here today. We know you have an incredibly challenging job right now and it’s an incredibly challenging time for journalism, for local journalism. So thank you, again. And please be safe, everybody, out there, even as you go out there and report the news.
So let’s—Theresa, I want to start with you, with a little scene setting about it. The administration, if I’m right, sent more than sixty thousand asylum seekers back to Mexico last year under the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols. And then the coronavirus hit. And they’re making it absolutely impossible for—as far as I can tell—for anybody to get in. According to a May 23 Washington Post story, at that point, since March 21, the Trump administration had expelled more than twenty thousand unauthorized border crossers. And at that point, just two people seeking humanitarian protection at the southern border were allowed to stay. What’s going on?
BROWN: So as you mentioned, I mean, for, I’d say, almost all of the first three to three and a half years of this administration there’s been a lot of focus on addressing migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. And starting with trying to address domestic law and policies relating to asylum seekers and finding ways to detain more and more people through the use of family separation policies, and zero tolerance policy, and prosecution in 2018 and then slowly shifting toward a policy or set of policies of pushing responsibility for dealing with the asylum seekers to other countries. So starting with the Migrant Protection Protocols, or remain in Mexico with Mexico, where people would be forced to wait in Mexico while their cases were processing in the United States, through the asylum cooperation agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, of which the Guatemalan agreement is the one that has been in place the longest, and actually functional.
Then with the advance of COVID, they found another tool in the toolbox to essentially, you know, prevent people from entering the asylum system in the United States. And that is this CDC order under Title 42 of the U.S. code, which says that the surgeon general and the CDC director have the authority to deny entry to persons or property from places that they think have outbreaks of communicable disease. And using this legal tool, the administration has adopted the legal belief and argument that they can expel people from the United States without any immigration process. And I want to make that clear. This is not an immigration process. It is not a deportation, which means technically it has no deportation ramifications that a deportation would. So there’s no prevention of—no five-year bar, and other things like that. That’s not on the record.
It is an expulsion. And it presents absolutely no immigration process or due process. And so we published on the Bipartisan Policy website, BipartisanPolicy.org—my colleague, Chris Ramon published a blog not too long ago that actually looked at the numbers under these various programs. And you have seen essentially these Title 42 expulsions replacing MPP and ACA because Guatemala has asked for no ACA returns since COVID started. And Title 42 is now the, I mean, pretty much only way that people are addressed as they arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.
As you noted, there are theoretically minor ways that individuals could make a claim for protection, but the data do not show that that is being used widespread at all. And it’s unclear, because we really do have a lot of information about how people are actually being processed through this program, because it happens so rapidly, what type of interviews or a process anybody is getting at all to even access that very, very tiny opportunity.
ROBBINS: So before I go to Julián, I just want to ask you one other quick follow up here. So when they first announced this, and a lot of their other immigration policies have been protested by people for their cruelty, because they’re considered violations of international law, certainly violations of the way we’ve done everything else in an immigrant nation in the past. But this sort of made sense when you thought about it, at first, when you heard about it. I mean, why would you want to have all those people together in a small space, you know, under detention. There’s a virus that’s going on there. And they said it was going to be time limited. It was only going to be thirty days. That was their first announcement, as I recall. Do you have any sense, A, are they legally limited, do they have to renew this every thirty days? Or could this just go on forever this way?
BROWN: They’ve actually renewed it somewhat indefinitely now. So you know, it’s based on the proclamation, it’s based on the order that CDC gives. And originally it was thirty days. And now it has been renewed indefinitely, or until further notice I think is the way that they put it. And I think, you know, there’s a couple of things. You’re right that every one of these policies has been opposed, protested, sued over. To date, I’m not aware that these Title 42 expulsions have had a lawsuit against them. And there’s a lot of potential reasons for that. Finding who has standing to sue in U.S. court on this—as I mentioned, people are being expelled fairly quickly, sometimes within a matter of hours after arrival at the border and sent back to their home countries in Central America. So who has the opportunity to, you know, register a compliant and file a lawsuit in those respects? So that may have inhibited the ability to litigation to be involved here so far.
But there are a lot of legal scholars who are questioning whether or not—basically, what the administration is claiming is that Title 42, in this circumstance, supersedes immigration law. That it supersedes any other obligation we have any other section of law. And that would be the legal challenge probably that people would try to make. But, again, it’s not—it’s not as easy as just saying, hey, I think this is wrong, I’m going to file a lawsuit. You have to have someone who has standing sue. And that sometimes can be a challenge in immigration cases, especially for people outside the country.
So what we believe and what we see is that the administration intends to continue using this authority until further notice. You know, it is based on the presence of a communicable disease in other countries. That is the argument in favor of it. And so theoretically if there was a change in COVID-19, or in Mexico, or Central America, or any of these other countries, that would be a ground to review and/or rescind that particular order. But as of right now, that’s not the case.
And I would also say that it’s important also to understand, even though the argument is that this is about spread of communicable disease, nobody is tested for COVID before being expelled. There’s no actual on-the-ground does this individual have a risk, is this individual bringing in a risk. It is a blanket bar to entry to anyone coming from Mexico. But it’s also unique in that it doesn’t apply to people applying at ports of entry. So this is what makes it somewhat questionable from a legal perspective, is it’s applying literally only to people who arrive between ports of entry. And you know, whether or not the CDC would have authority to apply it in that narrow consequence—you would think if it really is about communicable disease coming from another country, it would apply to everybody no matter how they entered. But that’s not how it’s being applied.
So, again, I think there are a lot of questions about the legal grounds, the implementation of it. But, you know, and Congress has said that they want to look into this and examine it. But Congress is hindered right now in its own doing of business by COVID, the way all the rest of us are, and their ability to hold oversight hearings, and make questions is challenged to. So, you know, this is—this is where we are right now, and people are being sent back in very large numbers.
ROBBINS: All right. So Julián, you are in El Paso.
AGUILAR: Yes, ma’am.
ROBBINS: So what are you hearing about people who are being sent back, the impact on their lives, and what’s going on down there? And how are you covering this?
AGUILAR: All excellent questions that would probably take at least, you know, at least two hours to take each one up individually. But just a snapshot.
ROBBINS: Very short!
AGUILAR: Right on. Exactly. First with the new policy, the Title 42 expulsion policy, and the sort of lack of protest, you know, the folks that are—I’m talking to organizations like the Border Network for Human Rights and other organizations like that, they would have been the first ones to do something. But at the same time that this was all going on the state of Texas was unclear about how it was going to enforce crowd policies, right? And then when you think about these demonstrations, you have a lot of folks that might not want to be asked about their status if they’re caught up in a large gathering, if the police decide to do it. And after Texas passed SB4, you know, that is a concern about local law enforcement then handing over the information to the federal agencies.
Keep in mind we also have a looming DACA decision. So a lot of the DACA recipients would also like to take place in stuff like that but, you know, whether you’re going to put yourself out there at risk for a policy right now, especially when there’s conflicting policies at the state and local level on organizing, so I think that’s what kept everything at bay.
But with respect to MPP, you know, the program rolled out in Ciudad Juarez-El Paso in late March of last year. And a couple colleagues of mine were in Ciudad Juarez in early April to try to make sense of it all. Now that we kind of have a grasp on how the situation was put into place and what the ramifications are, we’re seeing the COVID process sort of create a new sort of backlog, right? You had the metering, and you had the folks that were waiting already.
But with the postponement of the immigration hearings—for example, one story that I think has been told, but maybe hasn’t gotten enough attention is under MPP—and please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on this—but I was my understanding that under MPP women that were pregnant could request an exemption and ask to be excluded from the program. And even the government of Mexico initially said they would not—they were not going to take pregnant women back under MPP. And then that sort of evolved into late pregnancy, seven months or greater.
But because there’s no court, these women have no opportunity to ask for this exception. So they’re backing up in Ciudad Juarez. I got a text earlier from a friend of mine, an attorney friend of mine that’s in Ciudad Juarez, saying that she just saw a pregnant woman selling arepas out there when, you know, theoretically if there was no COVID and there’s no postponement she would have been able to at least ask for permission to be excluded from the program. Granted, not everybody that asks gets that exemption.
So we’re seeing different situations like that. You also had the situation of people being confused about when their court hearing was, even though CBP and DHS send out these releases saying, OK, well, if you have, you know, June 15 show up July 15, because these are all postponed. People weren’t getting word of that, or they weren’t trusting the government. They weren’t trusting the fact that they didn’t have to show up. You know, well, who’s to say that when they showed up in July because they took a directive to postpone their hearing that CBP or DHS or immigration judge, the EOIR wasn’t going to say, well, you absconded because you didn’t show up last month. You know, it’s, you know, sort of one person’s word against the federal government. And as we’ve seen, I don’t think a lot of these folks have reason to trust the government, you know, to this point.
So you’re seeing a lot of folks that are still coming to the ports of entries. I’m here in El Paso-Ciudad Juarez, but I’ve heard it’s going on in Nuevo Laredo-Laredo, in Matamoros, you know, Tamaulipas, and other ports of entry. So when these folks have to travel, they have to spend money to travel. They can’t—they can’t practice social distancing, right, because they have to carpool, they have to travel. And then, you know, not to mention the fact that northern Mexico is still one of the most violent parts of the country.
So these, I think, are the new stories that were emerging that still have to be told. But I say that with an asterisk, saying that, you know, it’s harder for—and I’m just speaking from the Tribune standpoint, because our newsroom policy has changed. I have to get permission to go out into the field. It has to be a pretty high standard that I have to meet, which I totally understand. You know, my editors don’t want to risk, you know, their staff getting sick, or being out there now, or getting other people sick, obviously. So those have been the biggest challenges, is identifying the new trends and stories, and then actually reporting on them.
Of course, we always have our sources that we trust, you know, for information and being able to connect with—to get interviews over the phone with some of these asylum seekers. You really put a lot of faith in organizations like AILA, the National Immigration Justice Coalition, and organizations like that to sort of connect you, whereas before you could just go to the bridge yourself and seek out these folks. So there are hurdles. It’s still possible, but there are definitely some hurdles here.
ROBBINS: So you have not been across the border since, when?
AGUILAR: On a reporting trip I haven’t been to Juarez since March.
ROBBINS: And what’s the standard that your editors are asking you to pass before they would let you go out there?
AGUILAR: Well, I mean, the first one is the obvious one is, you know, whether or not it’s a story right, which would happen, you know, if COVID was not going on. You know, is this a daily, is this a long-term thing? You have situations like that. But it’s just, you know, having contact information, making sure that we have whatever protective gear that we can have, you know, checking in. And these aren’t that different from guidelines that I had to call before, more so because the violence. You know, check in before you go, check in before you come back.
I just think the wildcard factor is what happens if we’re over there and CDC decides to shut down the bridge for several hours to all traffic? Which has happened before, you know, in short bursts, when they’re having a—you know, one of their drills where they shut down the bridge, and they throw their flashbang grenades, and, you know, kind of the show of force that we’ve seen. But in this situation, just like we were talking about the Title 42 expulsions, it seems like there’s a risk of being able to shut things down with no, you know, explanation given until later. And what does that do if we’re stuck there?
I might have an advantage because I still know people in Ciudad Juarez from family connections, not from the professional side. So I might feel a little better. But to the editors in Austin, you know, there’s a checklist that you have to meet everything, and you have to really convince them. Another example, on Sunday night I covered the protest here in El Paso, the George Floyd protest. And the police station in the park is less than a mile away from my house, and I still had to meet all these, you know, definitions of safety and, you know, making sure that—you know, I wrote down one of my editor’s cellphone numbers on, you know, in ink on my leg just in case I got separated from my phone. So, I think there’s a lot of similarities in how we’re covering the border right now with how we’re covering the protests, and situations like this.
ROBBINS: So I want to turn it over to the people on the phone with us. But I want to just quickly throw it back to Theresa and then back to you, Julián, very quickly. Which is, if you’re not on the border yourself, and you’re a reporter someplace else in the country, you still have lots of immigrants in your community. And they are very vulnerable people. And this is a pandemic that is—impacts and effects vulnerable people. And you add that with a reasonably cruel—yes, I was an editorial write, I’m allowed to say things like that—set of policies, what are the stories that need to be covered if you don’t live on the border? If you’re a reporter and you don’t live on the border, about how COVID and these changes in policies are affecting migrant communities?
Theresa, do you want to pick that one up?
BROWN: Sure. So I think there’s been, you know, looking just sort of big picture at immigration coverage by news outlets over the last four or five years, as I said, so much has focused on what has happened at the U.S.-Mexico border. And away from the border, so much of the attention has been on the undocumented immigrants. But I would say that there’s an interesting thing happening right now with COVID, and that is more people are starting to be aware of legal immigrants and their vulnerabilities. So for example, there are a lot of stories that I’m starting to see about not just DACA recipients, but legal visa holders who are on the frontlines medically. We have 25 percent of the doctors in this country are foreign born. An awful lot of them are in the queue trying to get their green card, but in the meantime they’re on temporary visas. And should one of them catch COVID and die while trying to treat everyone else, their family immediately become undocumented. And so this is adding extra strain to the work that they are doing.
The shutdown of USCIS offices due to COVID means that people who are trying to keep their status and have to renew that status and/or go to an office—even legal green card holders who need to renew their green cards every ten years. I mean, their status remains, but they have to get a new—like, we get a new drivers’ license, they have to get a new green card. That’s all being held up. And so that puts even people who have legal status are feeling a lot of that pressure as well. And that is happening all around the country. So I think what we’re seeing is that COVID in many, many ways is pointing out many things about our modern America and the various systems we rely on, and how fragile they are. And that includes the immigration system. And so people, I think, are becoming somewhat more aware of just the challenges of the immigration system itself, even trying to maintain status.
Obviously, those who are already undocumented are even more vulnerable. But you know, they have been left out of all of the relief bills. Even if they are married to an American citizen, they are ineligible. That whole household is then ineligible for the relief from the CARES Act. Business owners who may be using an ITIN to run their business can’t get the PPP loans. So students at schools are being kept away from the education relief money if they’re undocumented. So all of those vulnerabilities that already existed have been heightened. And there are lots of people in those communities who are very much struggling. And at the same time, they are the essential workers, right? They are the ones on the farms. They are the ones in the meatpacking plants. They are the ones in the grocery stores, and they are in the ones in the delivery places. And that is a very obvious dichotomy that I think is being made more aware to the rest of the country, that maybe, you know, people didn’t—weren’t quite as—weren’t quite as aware of before.
ROBBINS: Thanks. Julián, do you want to give your colleagues some story ideas that are not necessarily border-related?
AGUILAR: Well, you know, we just touched on quite a few of the ones that have already been written about, which are excellent points. You know, I’ve gotten reader emails, for example, the fewer people working means less money to send back to remittances, right? And I know remittances are controversial, but if you’re able to send money where people aren’t making it in their home country, that’s less of an incentive for them to migrate, right? So that’s one issue. And we and a lot of other publications wrote great stories about the CARES Act, and the fact that even if you’re a United States citizen who filed jointly last year, that U.S. citizen is excluded, U.S. citizen children are excluded. And I think that’s something that a lot of people weren’t aware of. And I think it does make some readers, you know, think twice about the frontline workers.
And, again, you know, and I’m sorry I’m sort of repeating everything that was just said, but those were all great points. USCIS. You know, what happens in the Supreme Court rules something with DACA that gives time for people to renew, you know, before X date, right? Then there’s going to be a surge of applications at USCIS. And I’m just—I don’t have the exact figure, but I think I read some reports that USCIS was looking to diminish it—or to cut its staff, or had to cut its staff by 50-60 percent, right, because of some budgetary issues.
BROWN: Yeah, they’re fee-funded and the applications are down. So they have—their income has dramatically dropped and they’re looking at layoffs.
AGUILAR: And something that goes hand-in-hand with the protests that we’re seeing in the present day is the fact that, I guess because border agents on the border don’t have as much to do maybe because of these policies, then we’ve seen the last two days that they’re sending border agents into the interior. So how is that going to impact folks that re protesting? How’s that going to impact folks that might want to protest? And that, again, I allude to what I said here about the border, and SB4, and people being asked about their status. Especially when you don’t know what agency is which, right? I mean, I couldn’t tell two nights ago whether I was looking at a sheriff SWAT team, or border control SWAT, or CBP, and things like that. So as more border resources get sent into, you know, the interior, I think that’s also something to look at.
I mean, you know, somebody asked me, it was like, well, are the CBP officers in Austin? You bet there are, because there’s an international airport there. You know, so they might pull those folks off and—you know, if you’re not familiar with how they interact with certain types of law enforcement officers, I think that’s one thing that people have to consider. But the big thing that I do go back to is the mixed-status families and just how this has been difficult for them as well, because of the CARES Act, because they are no longer to send back remittances, and because even though there are certain policies that you can’t, you know, evict somebody if they’re not able to pay their rent, I’m sure there’s still some concern that people aren’t going to speak up if they are being mistreated because of their status, or because they’re married to somebody that’s out of status, or they’re in status in limbo.
BROWN: I just want to say one other thing about the legal immigrants who are in jeopardy. If you are here on a legal work visa and you’re laid off, you have to leave. But if your country isn’t accepting flights home, you’re stuck, and you become illegal. And that’s happening also. So, like, I think there’s a lot of—a lot of those kinds of just stories that can open people’s eyes to just the challenges of being an immigrant in America right now—from all angles.
ROBBINS: So you said this has really shown the weaknesses of so much of the infrastructure of our society, and this is part of it. So with that thought, let’s open it up to questions, would be great. I think maybe we have some hands up.
FASKIANOS: We do. Let’s go first to Reynaldo Leaños. And tell us which outlet you work for.
Q: Hi, yeah. this is Reynaldo Leaños. I’m with Texas Public Radio. I’m based in the Rio Grande Valley.
And, yeah, I mean, I wanted to just ask a question, you know, to whoever would want to take this—Julián or Theresa, or anyone else. But I was wondering, you know, do we have any, like, insight, you know, as to how it’s determined, you know, for migrants who are expelled whether they are flown back to their country of origin, whether they’re expelled into Mexico. You know, do we have any idea of, like, how those decisions are made, because I came across a family who is Honduran and crossed recently—well, not recently. Actually towards the end of March. And they were expelled into Mexico. But I was just wondering, you know, do we have an indication as to how these decisions are made?
And just a quick second question, I think part of the CDC order it says that one of the goals is to keep people out of border patrol facilities because of, you know, conditions and overcrowding and stuff. But this family, you know, told me they were in custody for at least four or five days. And this was at the end of March. So I was wondering if you all have heard of any similar cases well, where people are actually, you know, instead of being processed in the field being detained as well?
BROWN: So I can just speak from what I understand the national policy to be. And those who are on the border probably have a better sense of how it actually is happening in reality. Where somebody would be expelled to depends an awful lot on whether or not Mexico is willing to take them back and/or whether or not there are other reasons why they may want to go—they may choose to go back to their own countries. If they are being—if they are choosing to go back to Central America, that may take longer because they then have to figure out logistically how they get them back home. The country has to be willing to accept them. They have to acknowledge that they’re citizens.
And frankly, the Central American countries have asked several times that deportations back to their countries be postponed because neither CBP nor ICE is actually testing people for COVID before they’re being deported. And that has caused breakouts of—I mean, I think it was Guatemala who said that half of one flight was COVID positive. So it’s actually spreading COVID down into those countries where they had lower rates. So all of those can be factors as to when and where somebody is removed.
In terms of their custody, again, if they have to be flown—if they’re being flown back to their country of origin, that takes time to arrange. ICE is the entity in charge of removals that way, not CBP. And so they may be transferred to ICE custody for the period of time it can take ICE to arrange for one of their flights or a commercial flight. I don’t think they’re doing commercial flights at all anymore. It’s basically ICD flights. And they do wait until they have a certain number of people to go back, to make those flights. So that could result in people being in custody a little bit longer.
ROBBINS: Thanks. Julián, you want to add to that?
AGUILAR: Yeah, just to piggyback, there’s a group here in El Paso called the Anti-Deportation Squad. Journalist for the Intercept Debbie Nathan is a part of it. And they were monitoring the flights. The flights are still going on. But I don’t think I’d be the expert on who gets on those versus who just gets sent back to Mexico. I have heard some groups that the situation of what happens when they get immediately repatriated back Mexico is that they have no place to stay there, because the Mexican shelters are obviously very weary of accepting new folks, that they have no medical record, or if they—you know.
Which was another case with the MPP folks, right? If you’re leaving a shelter in Nogales, for example, to come to El Paso, there’s no guarantee that once you get back to Nogales you’re going to be allowed back into that shelter, because they have their policies on once you leave you’re not going to be let back in. So a lot of those folks are—you know, end up in the streets. But I’ve also heard, you know, just anecdotally from other folks that with the immediate turn-backs, that there are more people paying the smugglers to try again, right? I mean, I don’t—we’ve heard for years that some of the coyotes, even before COVID, you know, you pay them a certain amount for one try, or two tries, or the money gets more if it include a checkpoint with border patrol. But I think now because the traffic is just—has just dipped so much, that with these immediate turn-backs that some of these smugglers are offering, you know, two, three attempts versus just one. So that’s another dynamic.
But the things that I’m hearing the most concern about are not necessarily the border patrol stations, but the ICE facilities. And, you know, the reaction that some of the migrants get, just out of fear. And then, you know, there’s allegations they get pepper sprayed. There’s allegations that they don’t feed them if they start to get a little antsy about their situations inside these detention centers. But we’ve seen, just like in states—you know, the state prison system across the country, that in the ICE facilities that the number of COVID cases are definitely increasing every day. So that’s another area of high concern, I think.
BROWN: Yeah, the other thing I would just note is that with the advent of the Title 42 expulsions more migrants are not turning themselves in, right? That was the case for the last several years, is that people would turn themselves in to try to access the asylum system. Since MPP and the ACAs, now people are trying to evade detection at the border. And that puts more power, if you will, back in the hands of the coyotes, who are trying to get them around border patrol. And that is a changed dynamic also. So that when people are caught they are expelled fairly quickly in general, but more and more—you know, that phenomenon of families just sort of showing up and raising their hands is happening less and less.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Emma Jacobs is next.
I was wondering if—this is maybe particularly for Theresa Cardinal Brown—your thoughts on the northern border and Title 42, and anything else to keep in mind.
BROWN: So the Title 42 ruling, as far as I know, has only been applied at the—well, no, I take that back. There’s been a handful of cases at the northern border. For the most part, it is a southern border phenomenon. I think there’s been—the last time I looked at the CBP database there may be even a dozen total cases at the northern border. And I think that’s in general because there always have been far fewer apprehensions at the U.S.-Canada border than the U.S.-Mexico border. Usually it’s less than a tenth the number annually. But also there are just fewer people trying to come into the United States from Canada than, frankly, right now, going the other direction. And it’s not as—it’s not as substantial a number.
They are being expelled. For the most part I think they’re being sent back to Canada, but I’m not sure about that. I don’t—I don’t have details on how that’s—how that’s going. And I don’t know enough about the nationalities to know what nationalities have—CBP has not given us that kind of breakdown of data for us to know. And this is one of the issues that we’ve had for the last several years, is that the data that we get is not enough. I mean, to give them credit, there was monthly apprehension data and monthly data on the number of unaccompanied children and families, and some breakdown in nationalities. And they’ve been doing that for a while. But we don’t have good data on ACA and we really don’t have good data on Title 42, other than what they give us in cumulative numbers. And so really understanding how these laws are applied, to whom they’re applied, you know, what nationalities they are, any demographic information about them, is hard to come by.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Let’s go to Travis Bubenik.
Q: Hey, yeah. Hi, sorry, can you hear me OK?
FASKIANOS: We can.
Q: Yeah. So I am a reporter with Courthouse News Service. And I’m in the Big Bend region of Texas. So, you know, really remote area, traditionally really low traffic of people coming into the country here.
But I’m still curious if we know anything kind of big picture about just how—what the conditions have been in some of the more far-flung, you know, border patrol facilities, holding cells, et cetera, you know, in parts of the country like this? I mean, just—and I’m just asking because I feel like, you know, these kind of areas don’t get a lot of attention in general. So I’m wondering if we’ve heard any kind of reports about the conditions in general, anything that I should be thinking about.
BROWN: Julián have you been to some of those border cross stations?
AGUILAR: Well, I think after all the stories that came out of the Clint center, right, that’s here in El Paso County, we saw border patrol, at least in the El Paso sector, erect these huge tent-like facilities in El Paso proper, right in the middle of the city. And they said that, you know, one reason was, you know, to avoid situations that happened in Clint, in other smaller facilities, like Otero. And, Travis, I think you’re absolutely right. I think, you know, Big Bend, and Del Rio, and situations like that, they might get overlooked. I do know that before COVID at least, like, the Del Rio sector, the number of apprehensions there just increased dramatically. They might not mirror the numbers that the Rio Grande Valley or El Paso see, I mean, but as a percentagewise.
And I think that’s what these large facilities were built for. There was even talk about building a larger processing facility in El Paso after the Clint situation that was similar to what they did in McAllen after the—you know, mainly the unaccompanied minor crisis under the Obama administration, and how quickly that was. So with respect to conditions inside the more remote places, at least in the El Paso sector, for example, when the Jakelin passed away, the little Guatemalan girl, right, that I think was the first of a series of young people that had died in custody, she was caught in Antelope Wells, or apprehended in Antelope Wells.
And even Border Patrol—even some Democratic lawmakers said: Look, these look like gas stations—you know, like large gas stations. These are not equipped—and we’ve all heard the same explanation, right? These cells were initially built for single Mexican males. They’re not built for family units. So I think CBP, DHS, and Border Patrol erected some of these facilities. That’s why we had Tornillo all of sudden reopen to house more adult people in custody. There was a GAO report that said that that was just an extreme waste of money, you know, compared to the number of people that they were apprehending.
But I guess to give Border Patrol credit, they did try to expand these facilities and open them up to avoid this overcrowding. But I just think that the numbers being so much lower since COVID and since the se border policies, haven’t heard as many complaints about treatment within the smaller facilities but, again, that’s not to say that it’s not still going on. I just haven’t been able to go out in the field. But I think that’s a great question. But at least for the most part in El Paso those complaints have—they still exist, but they have died down.
BROWN: So what I would say is I have not seen evidence that CBP is undertaking a complete desire to redesign or rebuild Border Patrol stations across the U.S.-Mexico border, right? To accommodate a different number or type of migrant. That’s not—I don’t see any evidence that that is something that they are looking to do. They have looked at, and they are working on, for example, a Border Patrol-wide meal contract that would provide better, more nutritious meals for people who are in Border Patrol custody for as long as they are. They have created contracts for medical personnel.
But the thing—and this is evidence by the GAO report—when they have a surge or, you know, just sort of this large migration event that they were unprepared for, there’s a quick, you know, sort of attempt at trying to throw resources at the problem. But then if it dies down, they’re like, well, wait, you never used all these resources. I think that’s a fundamental structural problem with our immigration system is that we don’t have any surge capacity built in. There’s no tolerance for creating a capacity that’s used in case of. Even though we do that, for example, in emergency management writ large, right? FEMA has stockpiles of temporary shelters and bottles of water all across the country because they know a natural disaster’s going to happen and they’re going to need to move that.
But we don’t think that way when it comes to immigration. And history has told us that we will face this from time to time for reasons that we have no control over whatsoever. And so I think that we need to fundamentally rethink our management structure and our systemic structure for dealing with immigration to be prepared for these kinds of events, and have a plan, and not have to scramble after the fact when already there’s overcrowding and already there’s issues. I think that’s a policy issue. That’s a leadership issue. It’s going to be a budgetary issue. But I think we need to just rethink that whole structure.
ROBBINS: Can I ask a question on a slightly different topic? Which, for both of you, how is the health care system dealing with migrants who are getting sick? I mean, you were talking about people in meatpacking plants, but also this question of people who are afraid to seek out or identify themselves now either for seeking out health. And also the previous Trump administration policy for green card holders. I mean, if you start accessing, you know, services from the federal government is affects your status. So suddenly you have large numbers of people who are particularly vulnerable people who are potentially going to get ill, and whose health we are concerned about, but also have the potential for getting large numbers of other people sick. So what are you—what are you hearing from a policy point of view or from—Theresa? And what are you seeing on the ground about people accessing health care who are potentially ill?
BROWN: So from a policy perspective, I think what we have seen is that we’ve seen an administration that has been, for most of its tenure so far, pushing forward messages of strict enforcement, of, you know, we will enforce immigration law inside in the country against anybody who is undocumented, pushing forward this public charge rule, which as you mentioned would restrict eligibility for green cards for people who have taken advantage of certain public benefits, even if they are legally entitled to do so. And that has created an atmosphere where immigrants are afraid. They’re afraid of government, as Julián said. They don’t trust what is coming out of government.
Now you overlay that with a public health situation where you actually need the public, all of the public, to trust what government is saying. And it’s hard. So there’s mixed messages. ICE said, we will not be conducting the same kind of interior enforcement that we did before COVID. We’re just not going to be doing that. USCIS put out policy that said that treatment for testing for COVID will not be counted against anyone for public charge. But it’s very difficult for many in these immigrant communities to trust that. And I think that that is causing problems. Health care providers across the country have noted even before COVID declines in access of health-care services to which migrants are eligible.
There is definitely reporting that in communities right now people are afraid to go out. And if they contract COVID, should they go to the hospital, should they get tested? All of those things are absolutely true. And again, I think there is, as Julián said, fear of enforcement still, regardless of what ICE is saying, especially now when you see that ICD and CBP agents are being called up supposedly in support of local law enforcement in various places around the country. You know, it’s hard to trust that they’re not going to be enforcing immigration law even though, again, they have said we’re not going to be enforcing immigration law in that capacity. The trust is not there. And that’s difficult. It’s very difficult, because we’re in a situation where this virus does not—does not look at papers at all.
ROBBINS: Julián, what are you hearing from local hospitals and health care providers about migrant communities and COVID?
AGUILAR: Well, I think just taking, you know, El Paso just in general, without separating people from their status, I think they still—there’s still a gap from initially when city leaders, when the Health Department, when people would say even if you have mild symptoms don’t go get tested, right, because there was a limited number of tests, or you might get other people sick. So consider whether it’s just a cold, or whether it’s allergies, and things like that. So there was certain instructions in place early on. And then now that they—that there’s more testing, they’re encouraging more people to get tested. But I don’t think that message has really stuck. I think people are still considering whether or not they’re going to go.
But, yeah, no, to Theresa’s point, even before COVID I think—and, again—and I’m sorry. I mentioned this before—in Texas before. I mean, everybody—we’re all familiar with the law. It’s like—it gives law enforcement, local law enforcement—it just sort of expands their policing powers. What it does is local governments can’t enact a policy that tells police officers: You can’t ask about immigration status. So this was a concern even before COVID, about folks going to the hospital.
But I think—I think those are those two main issues, right? I think those—the issue is that people aren’t really sure if they should go get tested because of the messaging that came out early on. There are few tests. Don’t go get tested if you have—if you have slight symptoms. But, yeah, there’s also now the concern about enforcement, even though SB4 exempted hospital districts from being part of this charge. You know, if you go to the hospital for something you’re still going to see law enforcement there, there’s a good chance. And so I think even that sort of deters folks. A lot of folks that might not have access to it, who were just going to stay home anyway.
But the city is really now trying to get people to get tested and, you know, trying to ease these concerns about the amount of tests. El Paso is neck-and-neck with Bexar County in the number of positive cases that we’ve had since people started testing. And Bexar County has more than a million people more than El Paos county does. We have more deaths that Bexar County does here. So I think city leaders here are trying to grapple less with, you know, reassuring people about their immigration status than just trying to speak to the cultural aspect, right? I mean Mother’s Day and Mexican Mother’s Day thankfully fell on the same day, because we saw a spike after Mother’s Day. You know, if Mexican Mother’s Day, which is traditionally, you know, celebrated on May 10, and there has been a—you know, American Mother’s Day was a couple days later, we would have seen two spikes, right?
So I think this is what folks in El Paso, and I’ve seen similar efforts in Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, where city officials are telling people, like, look, don’t just go to the Mexican side to hand out with your family and then come back, because, you know, social distancing is different there. So I think the bigger issue, at least with COVID, and testing, and hospital access under COVID, I don’t think it’s that different from the concerns that the undocumented immigrants had before this pandemic. And again now I think we’re just trying to—it’s an information campaign whether or not people should go get tested if they have slight symptoms.
You know, there’s a lot of folks that still believe, like, now all the summer’s going to, you know, come, and this is like the cold or the flu. I mean, it’s going to be 105 degrees in El Paso today. I have no idea, I’m not a medical doctor, what that does for COVID. But some people are still thinking, like, OK, well, it’s not really a big deal. And I do think that some people are out and about more without masks, you know, going to the stores without masks because they saw so many people converge and congregate because of these protests. So I mean, city officials are saying: Look, we had thousands of people in the park the other day. There’s still a pandemic. I mean, the county judge has said: If you were at a protest, please go get tested. So that’s how far we’ve come since March. But I don’t think the message is there across the county yet.
FASKIANOS: Mike Price is next.
Q: Hi, everybody. Mike Price. I’m with East Idaho News, here in eastern Idaho, believe it or not. (Laughter.)
I just wanted to ask: What are your thoughts on what’s happening with H-2A visa holders? We’ve got a lot of H-2A recipients here as agricultural workers. I understand that USCIS has extended those, but are there other issues that we’re running into?
BROWN: So this is one of those legal immigration stories that affects different parts of the country differently. So when the United States government basically closed down the U.S.-Mexico and the U.S.-Canadian border to all but, quote/unquote, “nonessential” travel, they had also closed down most—all but emergency visa applications at consulates around the world. So employers in the United States who had sponsored agricultural workers under the H-2A program or other temporary seasonal workers under the H-2B program were left very much afraid that the people they had successfully sponsored to come in legally would not be able to come in.
And so they went—many of their organizations went and lobbied the government. And so agricultural workers, essential H-2B workers, were exempted from the cross-border checks. However, if you’re coming from other parts of the world, other than Mexico, for example, of Canada, travel to the United States can be really difficult, if you’re coming from the Caribbean and some other parts. So the government agreed to allow workers who are already in the country on existing visas that might otherwise expire to work temporarily for new employers who had sponsored people who hadn’t yet arrived. So there’s this kind of complicated extension that is available to try to help fill that labor gap.
I have not yet heard how that’s working. There was also legislation passed at the end of last year that would have allowed DHS to allot an additional, I think it was thirty thousand, H-2B visas above the cap of sixty-six (thousand) for this year. They originally said they were going to allocate those visas, and then when COVID hit they took it back, because they felt, I guess, that out of work people could be taking those jobs, and/or some of those seasonal jobs may not actually exist anymore. So some of those visas are used for seasonal tourism industries in places that frankly are not going to have a season of tourism this year because of COVID.
So I’d say it’s still very much in flux. And you know, just on a bigger level, this is, again, pointing out the challenges of our existing system not being up to the task, right? Our system is not flexible enough to deal with these kinds of things. And the government’s trying to adjust to a lot of different aspects. The president issued a ban on immigrant visas—new immigrant visas for people from overseas but did not address the temporary workers at all. And now we’re hearing that he might or might not address the temporary workers. And his argument in that immigrant visa ban was, well, we need to protect the jobs for the unemployed Americans. But if you’re still letting in other workers, how does that make sense? And the immigrant visas that they’re—that they’re stopping are not most of the visas—are not most of the jobs that have been unemployed, right?
So there’s a mismatch there. There’s sort of a—I would say, it’s much more of a political point of view. And there’s argument without much data. So again, when I say there’s mixed messages, there’s also a lot of, like, not real coordinated federal policy addressing a lot of these issues right now. It’s very slapdash. It’s very, OK, we have this thing that we wanted to do before. We’re going to try to do now and use the COVID to do it. And it doesn’t quite match, but we’ll do it anyway. I think that’s another, you know, sort of on the national level, policy story that’s definitely the case.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. It doesn’t look like we have anybody else in queue. So this is your last opportunity because we’re coming to the close of our time. While we wait for that question, I’m going to—Carla, I know you have many questions. So we’ll go back to you.
ROBBINS: There’s always questions.
So, Julián, I’m your editor. Pitch me a story. What story do you absolutely think we should be covering right now? And should we—if you had the ability to travel, should we be looking at the impact on people’s security on the other side of the border, the impact of the disease on the other side of the border? Should we be more focused on what’s going on on our side of the border? What are you just dying to do? And I’ll let you go do it, OK? (Laughter.)
AGUILAR: Well, I mean, there’s—so I’ll give you sort of maybe the one that might be a little easier. If I wanted to do a story on the fact that the border wall construction has not slowed down at all, even though—you know, it might actually be ramped up. Would that surprise you under COVID? Or would you say that’s not really a story because—
ROBBINS: It’s infrastructure week. (Laughter.)
BROWN: It’s always infrastructure week.
AGUILAR: Right. Right. So and I say that because that’s one that we’ve debated, right? I mean, you know, they just waived environmental regulations to fast-track sixty-nine more miles from Colombia—the Colombia Bridge, which is—it would include three states, actually—Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Texas, right? But you know, some people are like, well, that’s not really surprising, because this is the best time for border wall construction to continue. You know, so that’s—would you think that that’s a story that, you know, needs attention, even though it’s not surprising to a lot of folks?
And the second one I would—I think it’s hard to separate, you know, our health over here in the United States versus the health is Ciudad Juarez just because there’s still so many people that go back and forth. So I think the story that that I would want to do would be, look, Juarez is the second-most dangerous city in Mexico—in the world right now, still even though with this pandemic. What are these folks that are being immediately returned through this immediate exclusion, where are they staying? Are they more—we’ve heard about, you know, the vulnerability of folks at MPP for years now, right, or for a year and a half, at least, on how they’re low-hanging fruit for these criminal elements that are out there.
With these immediate expulsions, with the fact that nobody’s showing up for MPP court and getting trapped in Mexico even longer, is are we going to see an uptick on that? And what is the Mexican government prepared to do? And also, you know, maybe down page, the bottom third, is as the violence is increasing, is that just going to give the Trump administration more ammo to say well, this is exactly why we need more enforcement on the border? You know, just—I know that’s a long question, and it involves two or three different themes, but, yeah, that’s what I would do tomorrow morning if you gave me permission. (Laughter.)
ROBBINS: OK. Just as long as you’re safe.
Theresa, I’m reporting from Michigan. And I want to go find a doctor who’s here on a visa. And I want to write a story about how vulnerable they feel, knowing that they’re—you know, that they’re on the frontline, what you were talking about if, God forbid, they were to get sick or, God forbid, they were to die, the impact on their family. Are there particular groups or organizations that these—you know, that would be able to hook me up with those people to do interviews? How would I find those people, other than the sort of door-stepping reporting that we’re having a real hard time doing right now?
BROWN: Yeah. So I would say that the places I would start is go to the hospitals, go to the clinics, and ask them about their doctors. Do they have foreign-born doctors? So are they in immigration, do you think any of them would talk to you? I mean, that’s sort of the basic. Local immigration attorneys. They all have cases. They all have cases. And they can put in touch with their clients who may—you know, and even if their clients don’t want to tell the story, they will tell the story of the client, you know, anonymously. And I think those are your best sources for finding the individuals.
But the other good thing about talking to immigration attorneys is they will tell you why the system is a problem. And one of the things I would really highly suggest, if you’re covering immigration from a local angle, I see a lot of local human interest stories that tell the stories of the migrants themselves on the ground. And they absolutely need to tell their stories. But without a context of how that story is influenced by or links into the broader policy conversation, I don’t think we’re giving our readers enough of an understanding of why that story is happening. Is it just that the government is bad, and evil, and wants to kick everybody out?
And yet, there persists this myth that the undocumented could just get legal if they wanted to. And I think if you’re not making those points together, you’re probably doing your readers a disservice. So you have to tell the stories, but I think it’s not enough just to tell the stories. You have to talk about the policies that make that situation happen and what are the options. That’s the next level. It’s connecting the local to the national. And vice versa, our national reporters need to connect the national policies to the local level and the individual stories, because it’s only with that full context can we have a really robust conversation in this country about what we do about immigration, because believe it or not they’re not—all these stories are linked.
It’s a system. It’s an immigration system that has lots of aspects. And the problems with the system and how it’s been implemented are how we get all these results, all these outcomes of people caught up in the system or among the system. And it’s true with immigration. It’s true with an awful lot of the issues that we’re confronting as a country right now. We have to look at the system. The individual stories tell us the outcome of that system and what’s wrong. But to fix it we need to go back to what’s the systemic issue that’s the root of it.
ROBBINS: Well, thank you both. I’ll turn this over to Irina as well, but I did want to also—and we can do this off line—but if both of you have recommendations for other journalists on where they can find data, in addition to the Bipartisan Policy Center, other good groups that look at the system, that write good policy analysis pieces. We very much appreciate the sharing. We know that the data’s very challenging, but certainly if people want to try to figure out what’s going on in their state or their community, how they can find information. Any recommendations from both of you on reporting would be really, really appreciated. And Irina I’m sure will track you down, or I’ll track you down for that.
BROWN: I’m happy to recommend some colleague organizations on that.
ROBBINS: Great. Thank you so much. And, Irina, thank you. Back to you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. And, yes, please, I will follow up and get those sources, and we will send it out to all of you on the call. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us. Theresa Cardinal Brown, Julián Aguilar, and Carla Anne Robbins, we appreciate this hour of great information, heartbreaking stories. And we need to connect the stories with the system. We are in great—it’s imperative I think now. We’re seeing just how imperative it is.
I encourage you to follow Carla on Twitter at @RobbinsCarla, Theresa at @BPC_TBrown, and Julián at @NachoAguilar. And of course—I love your Twitter handle, Julián, it’s wonderful. And please visit CFR.org, ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and ForeignAffairs.com for the latest developments and analysis on COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other regions around the world, and issues. And send us your suggestions for future calls, webinars that we can host as part of the CFR Journalists Initiative. You can email us at email@example.com. So thank you all again. Stay well. Stay safe. And thanks for all that you’re doing to bring the truth to your communities.