Roundtable: How federal immigration policies have shaped the border
S1: On this special edition of Roundtable , a closer look at the US-Mexico border and how the immigration policies in place are impacting the people around it. I'm Matt Hoffman , and the KPBS roundtable starts now. Over the last few months , we've been hearing a lot of news about the southern border , a new surge of migration spurred by Russia's war in Ukraine and ever changing immigration rules in the shadow of a pandemic are among the headlines. We wanted to bring together three local journalists who spend a lot of time covering the border region. They're going to help us get our bearings on what's happening at the border today and what could be coming. Joining us this week are Kate Morrissey , immigration reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune. Gustavo Solis , investigative border reporter with KPBS News. And Eliot Baggett , U.S. immigration team lead and the San Diego correspondent with the Associated Press. Gustavo , we're going to start with you here.
S2: I think of them as just both working in tandem to do the same thing. Right. If we think of our federal government's goal is to slow or stop the asylum process. It's like gate number one and gate number two. Right. Remain in Mexico. Essentially works with migrants , can enter the country and apply for asylum and begin their cases. But they're sent back to Mexico. And over there with that comes an issue of problems with personal safety and access to attorneys. But then when the pandemic came , Title 42 was enacted , then that really close the door to asylum altogether. Right. So now you don't even have the chance to get in here sent back to Mexico in the first place. I think it's sort of like , yeah , door number one , door number two. And they're both kind of closed with the overall goal of being slowed down or stop the legal asylum process in the U.S..
S3: And so with remain in Mexico coming back to the border end of last year , beginning of this year , we're seeing sort of an expansion of a trend that we've seen really the entire Biden administration. And that's one of basically not being able to say what's going to happen to any particular person if they choose to try to cross the border. So a person tries to cross the border. They might be placed in remain in Mexico , person B crosses the border. They might be expelled under Title 42 where they have no access to even begin their asylum. Case person three crosses the border and for whatever reason , they're released into the United States. There's there's definitely a component of nationality. There are disparities based on nationality as to how much access you have to the system. But then some of it is also really random. I remember talking to someone back in the fall of last year who had been put on a plane from Texas to San Diego to be expelled to Tijuana , and their relative had crossed the border with them. And because there weren't enough seats on the plane , their relative hadn't been released into the United States. So it's all very haphazard and and really a game of chance at this point.
S1: And Elliot , let's get your initial thoughts on what you've been seeing recently.
S4: Yeah , I would agree with everything that Gustavo and Kate said. It's , you know , just so your listeners know , you know , remain in Mexico as you wait in Mexico for your hearing , court hearing in the United States , Title 42 , you don't get any court hearing. You're just bounced back to Mexico. If you if you happen to be from certain countries or you're flown back , you know , Gustavo's right there both ways to keep to a well I wouldn't say block access to the asylum system but to make it more difficult for sure. You know I think the remain in Mexico I guess one point I would make about that is that , you know , the Biden Biden got rid of a bunch of Trump policies on his immediately right out of the gate the border wall deportation priorities and remain in Mexico. He's been forced to reinstate it back in December by a judge in Amarillo , Texas , I believe , you know , Title 42 , he's gone along with it. It's going to be they're going to be going to end on May 23rd. We think , you know , a judge could in fact , I think a judge is likely to try to to block that. But there are two different policies. You know , one point I would make about Remain in Mexico , if I may , because I just wrote about this is , you know , Trump used it on 70,000 migrants. Biden has only used it on , I think 3000. And that's because Mexico has imposed a number of conditions. And so I was , you know , in a in a shelter in Tijuana two weeks ago , I think were remain in Mexico. People were being sent back. There were 75% are Nicaraguan. It was kind of like the worst of both worlds because they were they didn't even. Know about it. You know , everyone knew about women in Mexico in 2019. These people hadn't heard about it because it hadn't. And it's not very used very widely. And so they were just really depressed. You know , they had sold their mortgage , their homes , they paid smugglers. And it was just like , pow , you know , they're stuck in a shelter in Tijuana. They don't know what to do. They don't they're afraid to go outside because they think they're going to , you know , get to get kidnapped. So it's it's pretty dire.
S1: Let's dive into Title 42 a little bit more here. That's a policy from the CDC. It allows border officials to use the pandemic as a justification for turning away asylum seekers without a hearing.
S2: But there's a federal lawsuit in place and in the border state of Louisiana. Just kidding. It's not a border state , but a federal judge in Louisiana has indicated that he will essentially do the same thing that happened with remain in Mexico and force it to stay. I mean , can we still call it a CDC health order at this point ? I mean , it technically is , but it kind of has. I don't know. It never really was. Right. We've got reporting that came out that said the Trump administration kind of went over the CDC , had to to push it in. And all the rhetoric from the people who want to keep it in place are making arguments not on public health grounds , but on border enforcement grounds. I know the idea that this is for public health because of the pandemic , I don't think anyone's really saying that's the case with a straight face anymore. I don't know how you guys approach this. So in your reporting.
S4: I agree. I mean , they were saying it with a straight face in the White House until recently. And I've noticed that once the CDC said on April 1st , they're going to get rid of it. Now no one's making all pretenses are dropped. But you do have like a lot of moderate Democrats who are who want to keep Title 42. It's not just Manchin and cinema. It's Raphael Warnock in Georgia and his son in New Hampshire. You know , he's got a political problem on his hands.
S1: And Kate , you've covered this a lot for the Union-Tribune.
S3: And what that does then is it pushes them back into these northern Mexico border cities where they are targeted as migrants , often by criminal groups or people wanting to take advantage of a vulnerable person. There's now a database with more than 10,000 documented cases of violent attacks on people who have been stalled in Mexico by Title 42. And that's just in the time that President Biden has been in office. That doesn't include attacks during the Trump administration. And then for people who are from Mexico , that means that we're actually requiring them to remain in the country that they are actively trying to flee because they say they're being persecuted there , which is a really significant thing when you talk about asylum law and asylum norms and this concept of non-refoulement , which is this idea that countries are not supposed to send somebody back to a place where they will be harmed or they will be tortured or killed. And the same thing for people who are expelled back to their countries of origin. If they're not from Mexico and they're put on these flights , we're sending them back to those places without doing the required screening. So that's a really big , big deal for those folks. Those are those are life and death things when you're talking about somebody who is fleeing for their life. When you look at the conditions in the places where we're forcing people to stay , it is it is very difficult. I've seen people living in just wretched apartments that I hesitate to even call it an apartment , because it's it's so distressing to see the kinds of conditions that they're living in and they're working multiple jobs to get paid under the table as people who are not authorized to work in Mexico to be able to afford to live there.
S1: And Kate , even though Title 42 may be going away soon , you've been reporting that here at the San Ysidro border , expulsions are actually increasing under this Trump era policy. What have you found there ? Yeah.
S3: So I would give Elliot credit for , you know , getting that reporting out before me yesterday about the new guidelines and the Cubans , they did recently negotiate with the Mexican government to be able to send Nicaraguans and Cubans back to Mexico. Previously , the official agreement with Mexico was that Mexico would take back its own citizens , as well as Hondurans , Salvadorans and Guatemalans. And so now they've added Cubans and Nicaraguans to that list. And so for the past week or so , there have been a certain number sent back every day across the border. And again , talking specific. We about , you know , Nicaragua and Cuba. Those are places where we know there's intense political repression , where that's been documented very well over the past couple of years. And cases involving political repression are pretty straightforward asylum cases , generally speaking.
S4: We know that picking up on I think it was Gustavo made the point about how Title 42 is unevenly applied. It's very targeted at Central Americans and Mexicans because it's very easy to just bounce bouncing back to Mexico. And , you know , but but if you're from Colombia , Cuba is is a really good example. The numbers from Cuba have really soared. People a lot a lot from South America , they're very unlikely to get you know , they do some of them do get a get expelled. But because it's so expensive and because our relations are so poor , U.S. relations are so poor with like Cuba and Venezuela , it's hard to get flights there. So those people are almost guaranteed that if they cross there , they're going to be released in the United States and be allowed to pursue asylum. If you're from Central America , I mean , it's kind of like what Kate says. It's just sort of well , maybe not somewhat random , but but there's definitely , you know , disparate treatment.
S1: This is a special Border Report edition of KPBS roundtable. And we're talking with Elliot Baggett from the Associated Press , Kate Morrissey from the Union-Tribune , and Gustavo Solis from KPBS. And Elliot , along those lines , you know , your reporting says that this is quietly being done , these expulsions.
S4: Yeah , I think you're referring to the Cubans and Nicaraguans , which just came out yesterday. It wasn't announced. It was an agreement that U.S. and Mexico reached last week to send up to 100 to 100 Cubans and 20 Nicaraguans daily through San Ysidro , through San Diego , El Paso and Rio Grande Valley. You know , it's odd because they've been arguing in court that , you know , they want to phase it out. And they actually did start to phase it out with Central Americans. They started putting more Central Americans through the immigration laws which allow them to stay here and claim asylum. So then but then they go around and just do the secret , you know , cannot secret , but quiet agreement. It was unannounced , you know. I don't know. They didn't you know , we tried to get comment from DHS. I mean , the best explanation I could come , you know , comes from an advocate , which is this is part of a well , they're trying to get as much milk , as much out of Title 42 as they can before it ends. And also , this is part of this new there's a there's a Summit of the Americas the first week in June in Los Angeles. And the Biden administration has made very clear that they want other countries to take , you know , shoulder more of the responsibilities for hosting people fleeing persecution. And so it's kind of part of that. They're saying , you know , we don't want the Cubans and Nicaraguans , Mexico , you you take care of them.
S1: And not to get a little bit confusing here. But , Kate , at the same time that all this is happening , you're reporting that local border officials have been accepting a very limited number of asylum seekers into the U.S. , even while these Title 42 rules are in place. Can you tell us what's happening there ? Sure.
S3: So Title 42 technically has always had this option for officials to make a case by case determination that someone should be exempted from expulsion because of mitigating circumstances , particularly vulnerability , medical condition , things like that. What we've seen change over time is how much officials are willing to use those exemptions. There was a time last summer where because of a lawsuit that was actually trying to end Title 42 , we saw quite a number of exemptions passing through and being allowed to have humanitarian parole being released into the United States , mostly because of medical conditions that couldn't be treated very easily in Mexico , especially as as migrants who don't always have access to the health care system. And so what we're seeing now is a sort of a a return a little bit to what last summer looked like , but on a much more limited scale in terms of numbers. And then there's there's actually two sort of ways that people can can tap into that , either if they're in the shelters , there's there's sort of one contact mechanism for for saying , hey , you know , I have this condition , can I get on the list ? And there's now a list that's been generated by shelter directors in coordination with the San Diego based group called Border Angels to bring people in. And then there's this this second access mechanism where attorneys sort of have feelers out in the community and find out , you know , who out there in Tijuana , whether they're renting or living on the streets or in a shelter that's not affiliated with that group , might have have some kind of condition that needs more immediate attention or be be in imminent danger in in Tijuana. They're really trying to prioritize those cases carefully because the numbers are very small. And part of that has to do going back to this Louisiana lawsuit. There is a limit on on exemptions that the judge has placed in this sort of temporary restraining order. So they can't just say , okay , well , we're just going to give everybody an exemption. It has to be within historical levels. But there's at least now a more formalized and organized process for doing that.
S1: And KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis , you've been covering Ukrainian's crossing through San Ysidro.
S2: Right. We have two years worth of of just anecdotal case data on how Title 42 works and how those exemptions work. Before the war in Ukraine and those two years was basically it didn't work right. I know. Mexican asylum seekers. One guy had a gunshot wound and still would not get a Title 42 exemption. Then the Ukrainians come. It took a while. They were they were treated like everyone else in the beginning until lawyers raise hell. And there was national news broke out. And I always got the sense that it was more political than anything else which which unfortunately tells you a lot about the asylum system , how it's not always based on humanitarian issues , it's based on other things that don't really have much to do with individual cases. But the Ukrainians were getting Title 40. Two exemptions very easily. I mean , I saw them really side by side. I saw Ukrainians would just hand their passport over and the Border Patrol would look at them and wave them through and ten feet down. Honduran mothers with with children , with health conditions , with lawyers and letters from doctors would not get those same exemptions. I mean , it was kind of impossible to ignore. Eliot and Kate , I'm sure you saw the same thing , too. I remember one story I wrote about a Haitian family. The daughter had a really rare skin condition. She was lucky enough to get three lawyers on the case , letters from two different doctors in the U.S. She still got denied the first time , but then got a Title 42 exemption the second time , which is great. Right. But the it's very rare for a relatively poor asylum seeker from Haiti have access to two doctors and three lawyers in the U.S.. Right. But she needed that compared to the Ukrainian nationals who basically just get their passport. It's it's impossible to ignore the optics of what that looks like in the border in terms of the color of the people skin. And I just want to add , it wasn't like nobody was anti Ukrainians. Everyone recognized that they're fleeing war. It was more like , hey , we want the same level of of service that they're getting , too. It was the inequity issue over there.
S1: And Kate , you have something that here. Yeah.
S3: Yeah. So I think Gustavo is absolutely right. And what we saw with the Ukrainians as as things got organized and as the process really formalized , what we heard from the volunteers supporting the folks who were arriving in Tijuana and waiting to cross was that CBP was able to take between 306 hundred people a day through the port of entry here in San Diego. And I think that really shows us what CBP is capable of when they want to process people onto U.S. soil to to request protection.
S2: When that's what to think about. Right. So sorry , Kate , but how many times have we been told that CBP can't process people because of staff and capacity issues , that they can't do more than 20 or 50 at a time ? But when they really want to , I guess all of a sudden now they can do hundreds every day.
S3: And that's , you know , even as we're still working through the pandemic and figuring out what's , you know , what's safe and what's not and how to how to mitigate things. And even with those considerations , they were able to find a way to bring that many people in through one entry point safely every day. And , you know , if they put that those same resources and that same intensity into working through , you know , the backlog of people who have been stalled by Title 42 , the border would look very different the last time that we asked on a press call to the White House , you know , what is the plan for the people who are already here at the border ? Because I think that that gets overlooked a lot in this conversation about like , oh , title 42 is going to end and people are going to come. That may be the case , but there are also thousands of people who are already here who have already wanted to ask over the past two years. And what is the plan for that ? It's very vague. There's not there's there's no way that the administration has indicated that they're going to sort of proactively work on that backlog.
S1: And , Gustavo , when it comes to the border , you've talked about the fact that what happens here largely depends on decisions that are made thousands of miles away up in Washington , D.C..
S2: I don't know if there's any other part of the country that works like this. Right. We're in the border and we have local representatives in Congress and in the Senate. But a lot of the decisions that happen here that impact our daily lives happened in Washington , D.C. , or from federal judges in Amarillo and Louisiana. And everyone kind of has the same what happens in the border , even if they're not from here and not that you have to be from here to have a say. But I don't know. It's just very strange to have so much of. Our day to day be decided by people who have no real connection to this place. I always think that's a really interesting part of just border coverage in general or border life in general.
S4: Yeah , I'm always kind of amused at it. When you listen to congressional hearings and these people from , you know , senators will say , you know , I've been to the border. Like they probably came for like two days and got a Border Patrol , you know , tour. But but I do think there's there is more understanding about what's happening at the border. Maybe I'm a little naive , but the reporting's been very good. And I think there's a little a little more understanding. I mean , we have a broken asylum system. You know , it was set up after World War Two. And it it's just not it's not serving that purpose. There's no legal really very few legal mechanisms to get to the U.S. So asylum is is being used in some ways , not the not the way it was intended to people coming for for economic reasons. And there are other people who really are fleeing persecution and they can't get here. So it's just , you know , the courts are backed up with 1.7 million cases. It takes like four years to to decide a case. There's just not any real movement in Washington to to do anything about this.
S2: And there hasn't been for a while.
S1: And this is sort of a big question , but I'm curious and you all can jump in here. We'll start with you , Gustavo.
S2: Right. And I don't know if there is like I mean , I'm not a Washington insider. I don't cover it at the federal level. But just from the outside looking in , it seems like there's no real legitimate push. Right ? There's kind of talk. And I don't I don't know if there's. I don't know if there's enough reason to to have this happen. Right. Because if think about how much money both parties raised off of immigration and the fact that the immigration system is broken , you can make a lot of money and get a lot of votes by arguing one way or another. And I think they both kind of benefited with a broken system that we have. And politically , I don't know. If there is a way to make it work because it's such a hot button issue and there's such a backlash if it's like you're either open borders or like total shutdown , I don't know. I don't know. It's like the rhetoric is is to blame or just where we are. But I don't I don't see it. Hopefully I don't know. Hopefully , Eliot and Kate , you guys are a bit more optimistic than I am.
S4: Yeah , I mean , I agree. I mean , it's there were there were opportunities in 27 , 2013. And I just I just don't see anything serious happening in my in our lifetimes. I mean , I do I will say and this is not really here , you know , here in a there. But I do think , you know , Biden and really Obama really don't like this issue. I mean , they really would rather be dealing with like 100 different other issues , whereas Trump and the Republicans in general , I think well , you know , I don't want to say every Republican , but certainly Trump and and some of the leading you know , they they really they lean into this issue. They really like it. And and , you know , Stephen Miller was a top aide. You know , he had it front and center. Whereas I just don't it doesn't get the attention that that it deserves , you know , in the in the Democratic administrations.
S3: Well , I think part of it has to do with the fact that our country has such a legacy mindset that the response to people arriving here is to deter them , to stop them , to send them away , to send them back. And whether you look , you know , as far back as as the Chinese Exclusion Act or things like that , or whether you look more recently at what's happened since we created the asylum system in 1980. Regardless of which party is in power , that is always sort of the mindset and the framework for the conversation , right ? Is that we need to stop people that that , you know , I mean , we still we hear the vice president say all the time , don't come when she's talking to people in Central America. You know , and I think everyone has their own way of trying to stop it. But that's always the goal. And and so , you know , when when the conversation is coming from that place , you're going to get one range of of solutions , I think , regardless of which party you're talking about.
S1: We're going to have to end it. On that note , this has been a great discussion and a special Border Report edition of KPBS Roundtable. I want to thank all of you , Elliot Baggett from the Associated Press , Kate Morrissey from the San Diego Union-Tribune , and Gustavo Solis from KPBS. If you missed any part of our show this week , be sure to check out the KPBS Roundtable podcast. I'm Matt Hoffman. Thanks so much for joining us. And we'll catch you all next week on Roundtable.
On a special edition of Roundtable, we are joined by three journalists working in the San Diego-Tijuana border region today to get their thoughts on how federal policies are impacting the people around it. Guests are Kate Morrissey, immigration reporter with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Elliot Spagat, U.S. immigration lead and San Diego correspondent with the Associated Press, and Gustavo Solis, investigative border reporter with KPBS.