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White House reaches out to immigrant advocacy groups that seek urgent action from Biden

Posted February 5, 2021 7:00 a.m. EST

— As arrests on the southern border increase, White House and other administration officials are opening a channel of communications to advocacy groups that have a direct line to migrants, according to multiple sources.

Days into his presidency, Joe Biden signed a slate of executive orders addressing the US immigration system, jump-starting a process to reverse changes made under then-President Donald Trump that dramatically curtailed immigration to the United States. But the orders largely kicked off reviews of previous policies, without effectuating immediate change, raising questions about how the administration plans to follow through on its promises.

Immigrant advocacy groups are urging the Biden administration to move quickly and have been communicating with administration officials behind the scenes to press them on making urgent changes, according to two sources familiar with the discussions. The groups, many of which witnessed the impacts of the Trump administration changes firsthand, were largely sidelined in the previous administration but carry influence among the migrant communities Biden is trying to reach.

"They've detailed some ambitious plans," one source involved in the discussions told CNN, referring to the Biden administration and the difficult road ahead for setting those plans in motion. "The deficit they've been left in in the previous administration is really starting to set in."

Trump's hardline immigration policies cut access to asylum and have kept migrants in limbo in Mexico while they await humanitarian protection in the US. Just this week, the Department of Homeland Security, left gutted after the last four years, got its first Senate-confirmed secretary in nearly two years.

"The cruelty of the prior administration has come to an end," Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Mayorkas met with leadership of the DHS component agencies and sought their feedback on a number of issues facing the department, including immigration revisions and reunification of families who had been separated on the border under Trump, according to a department spokesperson.

But as the Biden administration launches into overhauling the US immigration system, it also faces challenges on the US-Mexico border, where the number of people apprehended has been on the rise since last April, when apprehensions hovered around 16,000. In December, that climbed to around 70,000, according to Customs and Border Protection figures.

The increase has been fueled in part by deteriorating conditions in Latin America, which while grappling with Covid-19 was hit by two hurricanes, and a perceived possible relaxation of enforcement.

"The calculus coming in was that they finally accepted they couldn't make big changes," said one source involved in discussions during the transition, adding that the possibility of a surge on the southern border factored into that calculus. "They're deeply concerned about that," the source added in reference to the administration.

The White House declined to comment.

'Alternative pathways'

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration relied on a public health law to swiftly expel migrants, including children and asylum seekers, encountered at the southern border, marking an unprecedented shift in the way the US processed migrants.

The Biden administration has already said that it's not its policy to return unaccompanied migrant children. Mexico has also stopped accepting the return of families with children under the age of 12, according to a Homeland Security official.

As a result, the US is "having to find alternative pathways" for families arriving in south Texas, where the largest number of families and children arrive at the border, meaning that families who are not returned to Mexico are generally processed into the US under pre-Covid protocols, another DHS official said.

"CBP has seen a steady increase in border encounters since April 2020, which, aggravated by COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines, has caused some facilities to reach maximum safe holding capacity," CBP said in a statement. "Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren't possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a Notice to Appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing."

"COVID-19 protocols, changes in Mexican law, and limited U.S. holding capacities have forced us to adapt," the agency added.

Customs and Border Protection is building soft-sided structures in Donna, Texas, to provide processing capacity in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the busiest regions for illegal border crossings, due to a nearby processing center being closed because of renovation.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is tasked with the care of migrant children, is also reopening a facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, that can accommodate about 700 children and can be expanded if necessary.

On Thursday, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within HHS, advised its shelter network that to maintain "sufficient staff to process intakes and discharges 24 hours a day, 7 days a week is critical at this time," according to a memo obtained by CNN.

The change in administration, and subsequent announcements, has left many migrants still waiting in deplorable, and often dangerous, conditions wondering what happens next.

"Messaging matters, but reality matters more," said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. "You can message all you want but people respond to the real signals from policy changes. ... Confusion tends to lead people trying their luck."

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