By Ted Hesson and Frank Jack Daniel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has considered sending Brazilian migrants crossing the border from Mexico back there to await their U.S. court hearings, according to a U.S. official and a Mexican official familiar with the discussions.
The deliberations came in response to an increase in Brazilians arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum in the United States, the officials said. The administration of President Donald Trump has also explored the possibility of sending Brazilian asylum seekers to other nations, according to the U.S. official.
Trump, who is seeking re-election in November, has made immigration a central focus of his pitch to voters. During his presidency, he has railed against asylum seekers and argued the bulk of migrants arriving at the border lack a valid claim for protection.
If the plan moves forward, Brazilians could be sent to Mexico under a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols. More than 57,000 non-Mexican migrants have been returned to Mexico under that effort since it launched a year ago, according to the DHS.
The program previously had covered Spanish-speaking migrants. But the addition of people from Brazil, where Portuguese is the official language, would expand its reach further.
DHS spokeswoman Heather Swift did not confirm or deny the possibility Brazilians could be sent to Mexico, but said the department "is always looking at ways to expand and strengthen the program to include new locations, populations, and procedures."
Officials from Mexico and Brazil did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The possibility of including Brazil in the program emerged as the number of Brazilians arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border - a metric used to gauge illegal crossings - soared over the past year.
Border Patrol caught roughly 17,900 Brazilians at the southwest border in the last fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2018. The figure was a sharp increase from 1,500 arrests a year earlier.
Brazilians made up a small portion of the more than 850,000 people picked up at the border last year, but the surge of Brazilians has continued in recent months, even as overall arrests have declined, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.
Another avenue to deal with the Brazilian arrivals could be an asylum agreement brokered by the Trump administration with Honduras last year.
A Honduran diplomat told Reuters earlier in January that Honduras has agreed to receive Brazilians, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans beginning in late January or early February.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson, Frank Jack Daniel, Gustavo Palencia and Anthony Boadle; Editing by Tom Brown)