Originally Published in The New York Times

Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Catie Edmondson – March 10, 2021

The White House also revived an Obama-era policy that allows Central American children to apply for admission to the U.S. from their home country.

Central American children were held at a shelter in Mexico before being transferred to the United States to continue their asylum requests.
Credit…Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration took steps on Wednesday to address surging migration to the border, restoring a program allowing some Central American children to apply from their home country for admission to the United States and searching for additional housing for the increasing number of young migrants who have been detained after crossing from Mexico.

Facing intensifying pressure over the prolonged detention of migrant children, Roberta S. Jacobson, a special assistant to President Biden overseeing border issues, announced the restart of an Obama-era program that allowed children in Central America to apply for protection in the region and avoid making the dangerous journey north to join parents already in the United States.

That program and a $4 billion investment in Central America have been framed by the administration as crucial tools to addressing the poverty, persecution and corruption that have for years pushed vulnerable families to seek sanctuary in the United States. But the long-term strategy to deter illegal migration is running up against the immediate challenge of how to process thousands of migrant children at the U.S. border — a situation that has drawn swift backlash from Republicans and Democrats.

Troy Miller, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said on Wednesday that 9,457 children, including teenagers, were detained at the border without a parent in February, up from more than 5,800 in January. Detentions of unaccompanied minors in February more than doubled compared with the same period in 2020.

Officials apprehended a migrant along the border or at its entry ports more than 100,400 times in February, a roughly 28 percent increase from the prior month.

Most of those migrants — more than 70,000 — were single adults rapidly turned back south under a pandemic emergency rule. The Biden administration has broken from the Trump administration in letting children into the United States to make good on the president’s promise to be more humane at the border.

By Monday, the number of children stuck in border detention facilities had tripled to more than 3,250, according to federal immigration agency documents obtained by The New York Times. More than 1,300 of those children were held longer than the three days allowed by law before they are required to be moved to shelters managed by the Health and Human Services Department.

“We continue to struggle with the number of individuals in our custody, especially in a pandemic,” said Mr. Miller, who declined to provide the latest number of migrants stuck in border facilities.

Republicans are framing the situation as a crisis of Mr. Biden’s making, signaling an aim to use his immigration agenda as a political weapon against him in 2022. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, is planning to lead other Republicans on a trip to the border to highlight the issue. Representative James R. Comer, Republican of Kentucky, on Wednesday called the increase in migration a signal “to the world that our immigration laws can be violated with little, if any, consequence.”

Mr. Biden, however, has continued to use a Trump-era rule to rapidly turn away most migrants at the border, with the exception of unaccompanied minors. The administration last week directed the shelters designed to hold the children to return to their normal capacity, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

In the scramble to find additional space for the children, the Biden administration is considering housing them at unused school buildings, military bases and even a NASA site, Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif., according to a memo obtained by The Times. The NASA site would “remain unoccupied but available for use if H.H.S. has an urgent need for additional shelter space,” the memo said.

Darryl Waller, a spokesman for NASA, confirmed in a statement that the administration was considering sheltering migrant children at “currently vacant property” at the site. “This effort will have no impact on NASA’s ability to conduct its primary missions,” he said.

The Health and Human Services Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Biden campaigned on a more humane approach to immigration at the border, one that would prioritize investing in Central America to deter illegal immigration. But it has had the effect of drawing those fleeing poverty and persecution who see a better chance to enter the United States than they had under the Trump administration.

“One of the things I think is important is we’ve seen surges before,” Ms. Jacobson said. “Surges tend to respond to hope. And there was a significant hope for a more humane policy.”

One part of the Obama administration’s response was creating the program that allowed Central American children to apply for protection from their home countries.

Ms. Jacobson said the Biden administration would begin the restart of the program by processing the nearly 3,000 children in the region who were approved to travel to the United States when President Donald J. Trump closed that pathway in 2017. The United States will then begin accepting new applications for the program.

Ms. Jacobson also pointed to $4 billion in U.S. aid that will go to nonprofit and civil organizations as a way to bolster the region and keep Central Americans home. Under the Obama administration, Mr. Biden, then the vice president, led an effort to invest $750 million in the region. Mr. Trump had for a period cut such State Department funding to pressure the countries to do more to prevent migration north.

Ms. Jacobson emphasized that the aid would be sent on the condition that the foreign governments respect human rights and root out corruption. The approach, used during the Obama administration, was based on the view that it was possible to persuade governments to work with nonprofits to root out the poverty, corruption and violence that spur migration to the United States.

“They’re realizing that the aid can’t be successful as long as there are political and economic elites that are stealing public funds instead of investing them,” said Álvaro Montenegro, a member of the Alliance for Reforms, a platform of 35 civil society groups focused on the justice system. “You have to learn from how old strategies have failed. We have gone backward. There’s more poverty, more violence and more corruption.”

But even if the approach eventually works, it will take time to reduce the number of migrants traveling to the United States. Top administration officials have said that they will also need time to unwind Mr. Trump’s policies at the border and that if adult migrants arrive now, they will be rapidly turned away under a Trump-era emergency rule.

But Ms. Jacobson said that the messaging of the government could only go so far.

“We are trying to convey to everybody in the region that we will have legal processes for people in the future, and we’re standing those up as soon as we can,” she said. “But at the same time, you cannot come through irregular means.”

Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting from Mexico City.

Originally Published in USA Today

Rick Jervis – December 8, 2020

The number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has nearly doubled in recent weeks, and smugglers are using riskier tactics to get them across, a top U.S. Border Patrol official says.

Agents are apprehending an average of 153 young migrants a day at the border since October, up from about 80 a day earlier this year, Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz, Border Patrol’s second in command, said in an interview with USA TODAY.

In all, Border Patrol agents apprehended 4,764 unaccompanied minors in October, up from 741 in April – a more than 540% jump, according to court filings by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol. In a six-day span in November, border agents apprehended 997 unaccompanied minors – more than in the entire month of April.

Most worrying are the large numbers of those considered “tender age” – 12 and younger and sometimes as little as 7 months old, he said. In October, agents rescued two Honduran siblings – a 13-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl – from an island in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas. On Monday, 10 migrants under 14 were stopped by border agents in South Texas, Ortiz said.

“By itself, those numbers are a little alarming,” he said. “What is concerning is this tender-age population.”

Unlike similar surges in young migrants last year and in 2014, when the minors largely turned themselves in to border agents after crossing into the U.S., smugglers this year are trying to sneak the minors furtherinto the U.S. through remote areas of South Texas, floating them across the Rio Grande in rickety rafts and hiding them in stash houses, he said.

Originally Published in The New York Times

Michael Wines and Emily Bazelon – December 4, 2020

More problems arise as the Census Bureau rushes to compile information needed for apportionment before President Trump leaves office.

A rally protesting a proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Credit…Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

WASHINGTON – Census Bureau experts have uncovered serious flaws in a section of the 2020 head count that potentially affect the enumeration of millions, according to people familiar with the census operations, delaying still further the completion of state-by-state population totals that the White House has demanded before President Trump leaves office next month.

Census experts told the Trump administration last month that data-processing delays were making it impossible to meet that schedule, but the agency’s political appointees have continued to press for shortcuts in an attempt to deliver on the White House’s demand. On Friday, people involved with the census but not authorized to make official comments said the latest delay – adding 10 to 14 more days to a process that was already set to end well beyond the Dec. 31 statutory deadline – appeared to doom that last-ditch rush.

The extent of the additional problems – relating to the count of residents of group quarters like prisons, college dormitories or homeless shelters – effectively means that that isn’t going to happen, one official, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, said of meeting the deadline.

The Trump administration needs the bureau’s state-by-state population totals if it is to fulfill the president’s plan to strip undocumented immigrants from the state counts used to reapportion the House of Representatives. Such a move, unprecedented in American history, would produce an older, whiter, more rural population base for reallocating House seats that would mostly benefit Republicans, analysts say.

Many experts see the bureau facing deadlines it cannot possibly meet while maintaining its standards. Some bureau officials remain concerned that Mr. Trump will demand numbers anyway, a move that could plunge the nation into uncharted legal territory if the Democratic House and the new Biden administration reject the results.

The week’s developments are but the latest trials in a beleaguered and fraught census, with career officials forced to steer between a pandemic that all but halted the count for months and political pressure from the White House for results on the president’s timetable – sometimes, some career experts say, with little regard for accuracy.

Anything produced in this compressed timeline the Trump administration has set increases the chances of a corrupted census, Vanita Gupta, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said on Friday. The data problems can be fixed and the deadlines extended. But career census experts need to be able to fix the problems before the count is submitted. If the final data that is sent is shoddy, that could mean a failed census altogether.

The Trump administration needs the state-by-state population totals if it is to fulfill the president's plan to strip undocumented immigrants from the state counts used to reapportion the House of Representatives.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Spokespeople for the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Trump’s order put enormous stress on the Census Bureau and its system for processing data at a time when it was also contending with the challenge of the pandemic.

With counting operations all but ground to a halt in the spring, the administration asked Congress in April to extend the legal deadline for delivering reapportionment totals to April 2021, rather than Dec. 31.

But in July, Mr. Trump abruptly reversed course, ordering that the Dec. 31 deadline be met. That forced Census Bureau experts to compress five months of data processing into two and a half months.

The Supreme Court heard arguments this week in two lawsuits contending that Mr. Trump’s plan violated federal law and the Constitution, which says the census should count all residents, not just citizens, and requires congressional districts to be apportioned counting the whole number of persons in each state, using information from the census.

The latest problems, which were not discussed at the Supreme Court argument, involve the tabulation of a category – people who live in group quarters – that totaled about 7.5 million residents in 2010, according to that year’s census.

To provide accurate numbers, the census asks for advance estimates from the institutions that house many people and then matches those estimates with the totals it receives from census-takers in the field. This month, data processing operations have turned up large discrepancies between the two numbers, differences that can probably be resolved only by further review and in some cases returning to the field. (For example, a homeless shelter or a prison might have expected to house a larger number of daily residents than it actually had when the census was conducted.)

By itself, that is not unusual; the bureau found similar variances in censuses in 2010 and 2000. In 2013, the bureau described how the numbers for residents of group quarters were resolved in a chart that is part of the 2010 census Planning Memoranda Series – effectively reducing the process to a historical footnote.

But in those previous decennial counts, time had been built into the data-processing schedule to remedy that and other problems. This year, in its rush to produce figures for the White House, the Census Bureau had already cut its data-processing schedule nearly in half, leaving no margin for mistakes.

Moreover, the discrepancies are exceptionally large this time because the coronavirus pandemic disrupted census work and led many residents of group quarters to move in the middle of the head count. This category includes college students in dormitories or off-campus apartments, many of whom returned home when the pandemic forced an end to in-person classes.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday on the Trump administration's attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census figures used in apportionment of Congress. 
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a longtime census expert and consultant to a range of groups pressing for an accurate count, said the problems were not unexpected. She noted that the Census Bureau had cut back a dry run of its group quarters count and a post-count error check because of budget problems during a census dress rehearsal in 2018.

I’ve been raising a red flag about the group quarters operation, she said. I think the pandemic exacerbated problems the bureau has had historically with ensuring an accurate count of group quarters residents.

In meetings this week, the bureau ordered teams to find the source of the problems and recommend fixes by Sunday.

Problems counting university students appear to have been worsened by requirements of federal privacy laws that Congress failed to address before the count began. At least one university omitted last names of its dormitory residents in files sent to the bureau. Many schools did not turn over addresses of students who lived off campus but returned home, meaning that census-takers in college towns had no idea whether vacant apartments they found were truly empty or should be counted as a student’s place of residence.

Multiply that by millions of people who moved during the pandemic – children who brought parents home from nursing homes, jobless children who moved in with parents, relatives who consolidated households when money ran short – and the scope of the bureau’s problems becomes apparent, said Rob Santos, the vice president of the Urban Institute and president-elect of the American Statistical Association.

They could be in a situation where they don’t know what they don’t know, and by the time they find out, it’s too late, Mr. Santos said. I don’t have high confidence that this can be done in two weeks, or three weeks, or a month. I think the Census Bureau needs time to do its due diligence, sort out the problems and fix them.

In telling the administration last month that they would be unable to deliver totals to Mr. Trump before he leaves office, the bureau’s experts cited unidentified anomalies in the data that had to be resolved before work could continue.

In a letter released this week, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform stated that internal documents obtained from the Census Bureau described 13 anomalies identified as of Nov. 19 that impact more than 900,000 census records. The documents noted that if new anomalies were identified, additional time may be required for comprehensive release.

Officials say that the group quarters discrepancies were among those anomalies, and that the true scope of the problem became known only as it was investigated.

With prospects of meeting the White House deadline increasingly dim, the bureau’s political appointees have ratcheted up pressure on career experts to meet it anyway, scrutinizing the data-processing timeline for operations that could be shortened or delayed.

Supreme Court arguments this week suggested that Mr. Trump’s effort to strip undocumented immigrants from reapportionment totals would face a second challenge – compiling an accurate count of people in the country illegally. Under questioning, Jeffrey B. Wall, the acting United States solicitor general, said that count is fairly fluid.

Originally Published in The New York Times

Caitlin Dickerson and Michael D. Shear

Up to 300,000 additional undocumented immigrants could be allowed to apply for protection from deportation under a new court ruling. President Trump had sought to cancel the program.

A June demonstration in San Diego in support of beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Credit…Sandy Huffaker/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

A federal judge on Friday ordered the Trump administration to fully restore an Obama-era program designed to shield young, undocumented immigrants from deportation, dealing what could be a final blow to President Trump’s long-fought effort to end the protections.

The program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was created by President Barack Obama in 2012. Over the years, it has protected more than 800,000 individuals, known as dreamers, who met a series of strict requirements for eligibility.

But those protections have been under legal and political siege from Republicans for years, leaving the immigrants who were enrolled in DACA uncertain whether the threat of deportation from the United States could quickly return with a single court order or presidential memorandum.

Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn directed the administration on Friday to allow newly eligible immigrants to file new applications for protection under the program, reversing a memorandum issued in the summer by Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, which restricted the program to people who were already enrolled. As many as 300,000 new applicants could now be eligible, according to the lawyers who pushed for the reinstatement.

The memo from the Department of Homeland Security also limited benefits under the program, including permits to work, to one year, but the judge ordered the government to restore them to a full two years. Judge Garaufis, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, also said the government must find a way to contact all immigrants who are eligible for the program to inform them of the change.

The judge said the government must announce the changes to the program on its website by Monday.

Lawyers who had challenged the Trump administration in the case celebrated the decision, saying that amid a pandemic and global economic recession, it granted some stability to a vulnerable group.

This is a really big day for DACA recipients and immigrant young people, said Karen Tumlin, director of the Justice Action Center, who litigated the class-action case. It’s a day that many of them have been waiting for for over three years. She said it could open the door for hundreds of thousands of immigrant youths who have been unfairly denied their chance under the DACA program.

The program still faces other challenges, including a case in federal court in Texas, where Republican attorneys general have asked a judge to declare it unlawful. And Mr. Trump’s administration could appeal the ruling by Judge Garaufis in the days ahead.

Immigration advocates said they hoped the administration would not continue its legal fight to end the program given the arrival of a new, Democratic administration in less than two months.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has vowed to restore the DACA program when he takes office, but a legislative solution that would permanently allow the dreamers to live and work legally in the United States remains elusive, leaving their fates to the shifting political winds in Washington.

If the judge’s order still stands by the time Mr. Biden takes office in January, the new president would need to do nothing to make good on his promise. But Mr. Biden is certain to face intense pressure from immigrant groups to fight for a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that would take care of the dreamers and millions of other undocumented immigrants.

Comprehensive legislation, including one that would provide a path to citizenship for some immigrants, would be less vulnerable to legal challenges than DACA, which Mr. Obama created using the executive powers of his office after Congress repeatedly refused to act.

But securing passage of a bill that includes citizenship for undocumented immigrants could be difficult for Mr. Biden, especially if Republicans still control the Senate after two runoff elections in Georgia early in January.

Americans have historically considered DACA beneficiaries to be among the most sympathetic categories of immigrants. Having violated immigration laws through no fault of their own by being brought to the United States as minors, they are required to have a high school diploma or G.E.D., unless they have served in the military, and they must maintain a clean criminal record to hold on to their status.

In a Pew survey conducted in June, about three-quarters of respondents, including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, favored extending a pathway to permanent legal status to dreamers.

The program has had generational impact. Researchers estimate that 250,000 U.S.-born children have at least one parent who is enrolled in DACA, and that about 1.5 million people in the United States live with a beneficiary of the program.

The judge’s ruling on Friday is a significant legal setback to Mr. Trump’s yearslong attempt to terminate the program.

As a candidate, Mr. Trump insisted that DACA was unconstitutional, and as president he moved to end it in September 2017. That effort was put on hold by federal judges while the merits of the president’s actions were evaluated. The legal battle culminated in a Supreme Court ruling this summer in which the justices said the president had not followed proper procedures to end the program.

In the wake of that ruling, Mr. Wolf only partially reinstated the program, refusing to allow new immigrants to apply and slashing the length of renewals to one year, instead of the two years previously allowed.

In November, Judge Garaufis determined that the partial reinstatement was invalid because it had been issued in the form of a memo by Mr. Wolf, who Judge Garaufis found had been unlawfully appointed to his position.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday night.

But the administration has disputed the judge’s determination that Mr. Wolf was not properly appointed and has signaled in the past that it intends to fight challenges to the president’s efforts to end or scale back the program.

Adam Liptak contributed reporting.

Caitlin Dickerson is a Peabody Award-winning reporter based in New York who covers immigration. She has broken stories on asylum, detention and deportation policy, as well as the treatment of immigrant children in government custody.


Michael D. Shear is a White House correspondent. He previously worked at The Washington Post and was a member of their Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.