GOP governors busing migrants from the border was bad. Some Biden administration policies are even worse.
Throughout the summer, Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis, the Catholic governors of Texas and Florida, bused hundreds of asylum seekers from the U.S.-Mexico border to Northern cities, saying they wanted to bring attention to the burdens of migration on border communities. The governors’ political showmanship invited wide-ranging criticism, but in reality the transport of nonconsenting asylum seekers is a mainstay of U.S. immigration policy, and certain practices of the Department of Homeland Security have been far more destructive.
One example is “lateral expulsions”: The Border Patrol apprehends people who cross the border in one area, then D.H.S. flies or buses them across the country to an unfamiliar Mexican border city without their consent and without information about where they are going. Lateral expulsions spiked under Title 42, the public health rule that the Trump and Biden administrations used to close the border during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially after the Mexican state of Tamaulipas stopped accepting migrant families that had been expelled by the United States.
The Border Patrol apprehends people who cross the border in one area, then D.H.S. flies or buses them across the country to an unfamiliar Mexican border city without their consent.
Title 42 expired in May, but according to testimony from a D.H.S. official at a U.S. Senate hearing on Sept. 6, lateral flights of families along the border have continued even after the end of the policy, ostensibly in order to “alleviate overcrowding” at certain facilities where migrants are “processed” before expulsion.
We know that from May through October 2021, D.H.S. held more than 22,000 people (mostly asylum seekers) who had crossed the border from Reynosa, in Tamaulipas, to McAllen, Tex., for days at a time in a makeshift processing site under a highway bridge. D.H.S. then flew these people to Tucson, San Diego or El Paso. Finally, the officials bused them to the border and expelled most of them into Mexico, far from where they had crossed. Hundreds of these people eventually arrived in Nogales, Sonora, at the Kino Border Initiative, where they shared details about their experiences. (See the joint report from the Kino Border Initiative and the Strauss Center at the University of Texas.)
Whether this is D.H.S.’s intention or not, many families who experience this treatment decide to give up on their migration attempt and return home. The D.H.S. might consider this an effective kind of deterrence, but it is a moral failure: It indicates that U.S. immigration officials have abused a person enough that, in the last leg of the most difficult experience of their life, they have given up.
Whether this is D.H.S.’s intention or not, many families who experience this treatment decide to give up on their migration attempt and return home.
Note that before the Covid pandemic, a person could approach any U.S. official at the border and request asylum; this began an interview process that determined their eligibility. But under Title 42, asylum eligibility screenings were not available at ports of entry. So in many places, the only chance at an asylum interview came from an illegal border crossing: People crossed the border illegally, surrendered to Border Patrol and requested asylum from the agents detaining them. Many families apprehended near McAllen were doing precisely this. But Title 42 also authorized these agents to ignore asylum claims and instead expel a person back into Mexico. (When Title 42 was lifted, the Biden administration implemented a new process for asylum screening that includes making an appointment on a cellphone app.)
There were a few sporadic exceptions to the practice of ignoring asylum claims, based on a person’s nationality or special vulnerabilities: For example, people from Nicaragua or Cuba were not expelled but allowed into the United States. Smugglers used these exceptions to mislead other migrants into thinking that Border Patrol agents would eventually allow a person into the country in most cases. This was not true. And when Tamaulipas stopped accepting expelled migrant families, claiming its shelters were full, D.H.S. began sending families instead to Nogales and to Juarez, Chihuahua, and Tijuana, Baja California, all places where state governments would still allow the expulsions into Mexico.
Expelling families into unfamiliar border cities makes them uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and violence.
Expelling families into unfamiliar border cities makes them uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Different organized crime groups (“mafias,” as they’re known locally) control different border cities and the illegal border crossings through that territory. If you’ve taken out a loan or spent your savings to pay smugglers in one city, but D.H.S. flies you to another city and expels you there, you don’t have money to pay smugglers in the new city. They will still demand payment, and even kidnap migrants until they find someone to pay ransom, often with the help of corrupt Mexican law enforcement officers who wait at ports of entry and inform the local mafia when D.H.S. expels a group of migrants.
Advocacy groups documented thousands of violent crimes against asylum seekers expelled into Mexican border cities under Title 42. Granted, we do not know what has happened specifically to the people D.H.S. expelled laterally—it is extremely difficult to track what happens to specific people when both their survival and victimization rely on their anonymity. People try to migrate clandestinely; others try to harm them clandestinely. The dynamics of organized exploitation of migrants in border cities, however, are documented in detail, so for D.H.S. to employ a practice like lateral expulsions is willful, reckless ignorance at best.
Five months after his election, Pope Francis reminded the world that “migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity.” Ten years later the metaphor resurfaced: “It is a both sad and tragic day when a government official uses migrants as a pawn for political purposes,” said D.H.S. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, referring to Gov. Abbott’s and Gov. DeSantis’s practice of busing asylum seekers to sanctuary cities. The governors may have used asylum seekers as pawns, but so has the D.H.S.
There are degrees to dehumanization, and the dehumanization that allows the possibility of death or irreparable harm is the kind by which we should judge the moral acceptability of immigration enforcement practices. In a Catholic moral framework that affirms that migration doesn’t diminish a person’s dignity, this is truly an indefensible neglect of the image of God.