Mexico agrees to establish 'tactical checkpoints' after U.S. requests help with surge of migrants

Last month, amid the latest surge of migrants crossing the southern border, U.S. officials in the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector in Texas contacted officials in the Mexican government to request their assistance to defer migrant traffic away from the sector’s overwhelmed ports of entry.

According to a government document obtained by Yahoo News, Mexican officials agreed to help and enlisted the state police in the Mexican state of Coahuila, which borders Texas, to activate “tactical checkpoints” at four locations to interdict migrants traveling to the U.S. border. The document, which was issued by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Intelligence on March 16, was marked “unclassified” and “law enforcement sensitive.”

The plan to staff of checkpoints in Mexico in March, which has not previously been reported, was seen as a tool to help stem the flow of migrants attempting to cross the southern border at a time when the Biden administration faces mounting pressure from both sides of the political spectrum to stave off an even bigger surge of immigrants in the coming months.

In addition to seasonal trends that usually bring a springtime surge of migrants, Homeland Security officials have said that they anticipate an uptick in border crossings ahead of the May 23 deadline to terminate a sweeping public health order that had been used since the start of the pandemic to block most asylum seekers from entering the country.

Migrants arrive in El Ceibo, Guatemala
Migrants arrive in El Ceibo, Guatemala, in August 2021, after being deported from the U.S. and Mexico. (Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its plan to terminate the Trump-era policy known as Title 42. On a call with reporters following the announcement, a CBP official who spoke on background named the Del Rio sector in particular as an area of the border where a potential surge in migrant traffic could present significant challenges.

On Thursday, Republicans on the Senate Homeland Security Committee sent a letter to the committee’s chairman, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., calling for a hearing on Title 42 and other border policies, including a new rule intended to speed up processing for asylum seekers.

“The implications of both of these decisions will undoubtedly lead to a surge of migrants at our southern border,” read the letter, which was first reported by Fox News Digital. “It is unclear whether the Biden administration has plans to respond effectively to the expected surge of illegal immigration that will result from these policy decisions this spring and summer.”

It’s not just Republicans who are pressuring the Biden administration to keep Title 42 in place.

“Prematurely ending Title 42 without a comprehensive, workable plan would put at risk the health and safety of Arizona communities and migrants,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who serves as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management.

Sinema was one of five Democratic Senators who joined Republicans lawmakers this week in introducing a proposal to temporarily block the Biden administration’s plan to lift Title 42. The proposal would require the CDC, in consultation with DHS, to submit a plan to Congress on how the government would address a potential surge in border crossers once the public health order is lifted.

A spokesperson for CBP declined to comment on the document obtained by Yahoo News, and did not answer questions about additional coordination between CBP and Mexican authorities to curb migrant flows ahead of Title 42 being lifted next month.

A CBP official said the agency regularly engages stakeholders, non-governmental organizations, federal law enforcement partners, state and local officials, and our partners in Mexico and throughout the Western Hemisphere in addressing a variety of issues.

A spokesperson for the Coahuila State Police did not respond to a request for comment.

Migrants caught crossing the US-Mexico border are loaded into a transport van
Migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are loaded into a transport van by Border Patrol agents in Sunland Park, N.M., July 22, 2021. (Paul Ratje/AFT via Getty Images)

The plan for Coahuila police checkpoints described in the March 16 CBP document was initiated in response to an uptick in border crossers in the Del Rio sector that occurred before the termination of Title 42 was announced. But the timing of the collaboration, in addition to recent, high-level meetings between U.S. and Mexican officials, raises red flags for some immigration advocates.

“This confirms our general suspicion that the U.S. will continue to turn to Mexico to stop migration, especially now that there are plans to lift Title 42,” said Savitri Arvey, policy adviser for migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

For Arvey and others who’ve been calling for the end of Title 42 since it was implemented at the beginning of the pandemic, these types of joint efforts by CBP and Mexican authorities stand to undermine the rights of migrants seeking asylum protections in the U.S. just as those rights are finally being restored.

Under both U.S. and international law, asylum protections are available to people from anywhere in the world who have been forced to flee their own country because of persecution, war or violence and who are unable or unwilling to return home due to “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Federal law allows anyone to request asylum protections in the U.S. as long as they’re in the country — regardless of how they got there. In other words, migrants who are caught crossing the border unlawfully or present themselves at an official U.S. port of entry without proper documentation must be allowed to request asylum in the U.S.

Prior to the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the implementation of Title 42, immigration officers were required to ask undocumented migrants encountered at the U.S. border if they feared persecution if returned to their home country. Migrants who expressed a fear of return were then referred for a secondary screening with a U.S. asylum officer and, if they were able establish a credible fear of persecution, would be placed in deportation proceedings, where they’d eventually get the chance to argue their asylum case before an immigration judge.

In March 2020, reportedly under pressure from the Trump White House and against the objections of public health experts — the CDC issued an emergency order under an obscure provision of U.S. law (Title 42) that effectively closed down the borders in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Under Title 42, U.S. immigration agents were able to immediately deport almost everyone who arrived at U.S. borders lacking legal documentation without giving them the chance to request protections first — even if they expressed a fear of return. More than 1.7 million migrants have been deported under Title 42 since the policy first went into effect more than two years ago. Though the provision was initiated under Trump, a majority of Title 42 expulsions have been carried out under President Biden.

When the termination of Title 42 takes effect on May 23, border officials will resume the pre-pandemic process of placing asylum seekers who establish a credible fear of return into deportation proceedings. But immigration advocates say efforts to block migrants from even reaching the border in the first place go against the spirit of asylum policy.

“We’re not saying that everyone has a claim, but we’re saying that they should at least be able to make their claims heard,” Daniella Burgi-Palomino, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for U.S. policies that promote human rights in Latin America.

By using checkpoints and other tactics to stop migrants before they can get to the border, Burgi-Palomino said, “you really are talking about denying people the right to seek asylum, and actually stopping that process from even happening.”

Asylum-seeking migrants walk near the border wall after crossing the Rio Bravo River, in El Paso, Texas
Asylum-seeking migrants walk near the border wall after crossing the Rio Bravo River, in El Paso, Texas, April 6, 2022. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/TPX Images of the Day/Reuters)

While the latest agreement between U.S. and Mexican immigration officials was not publicly known, collaboration between the two countries to try to control the flow of migrants is nothing new. Humanitarian groups on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border have sounded alarm bells about these kinds of historically secretive collaborations between U.S. and Mexican authorities dating back to the Obama administration.

The Trump administration was explicit about demanding cooperation from Mexico in helping to curb migration at the southern border. It used the threat of tariffs to forge a deal with the Mexican government to crack down on undocumented migrants in the summer of 2019, and pressured the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala into signing the Asylum Cooperative Agreements, aimed at curtailing the flow of Central American asylum seekers to the U.S., by withholding foreign assistance to those countries.

Historically, Burgi-Palomino said, the partnership between the U.S. and Mexico on immigration has been marked by a lack of transparency and is often not the result of any kind of formal, written policy or guidance.

One example of this is the use of a tactic known as metering, in which CBP officers, with the help of Mexican authorities, claim capacity constraints in order to limit the number of asylum seekers who can request protections at a given port of entry each day. The practice of metering, which began during the Obama administration and was drastically expanded under Trump before a federal judge deemed it unconstitutional last year, has been used to force thousands of asylum seekers to wait for weeks and months, often in dangerous Mexican border towns, before they can begin the process of requesting asylum in the U.S.

The Biden administration formally ended metering in November 2021, but it has pursued its own controversial collaborations with Mexican authorities, including the practice of sending Central American and Mexican families expelled under Title 42 to southern Mexico, which the U.N. refugee agency suggested may have violated international law.

It’s not clear exactly how the Biden administration will work with authorities in Mexico and other countries once Title 42 is lifted, but recent high-level meetings between U.S. and Mexican officials indicate the collaboration will continue.

The CBP official noted that in March, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made his fourth official visit to Mexico City where he and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador discussed efforts to promote lawful trade and travel and a regional approach to migration management. And two weeks ago, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus was in Mexico meeting with Mexican government, law enforcement, and customs agencies to further collaboration between the United States and Mexico on bilateral opportunities and challenges, including in efforts related to migration management.

Linda Corchado, the interim executive director at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which provides legal representation to low-income immigrants and asylum seekers, told Yahoo News this week that colleagues with the center’s Mexican operations in Ciudad Juarez have noticed a growing presence of Mexican immigration officers and National Guard members in the streets surrounding a major migrant shelter.

The frequency of interactions between the El Paso, Texas-based center’s clients and Mexican officials has also been on the rise over the 30 days, Corchado said, noting that 60 percent of clients seeking Title 42 exemptions in the last month have had encounters with Mexican immigration officers.

“Seeing how much the U.S. government is now coordinating with Mexican officials to interdict this lawful process to seek asylum is really alarming,” Corchado said, adding, “And we haven’t received any assurances that people persecuted by their own government in Mexico will be able to access our asylum laws so long as these relationships and agreements continue to happen.”