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MEXICALI, Mexico—Thousands of migrant families who enter the U.S. illegally every week and request asylum are freely released in border towns. Thousands more are turned back to Mexico.
Which group they fall into is often not a matter of policy—but luck.
President Joe Biden has said the U.S. is sending most migrant families back across the border, but the treatment of parents with children depends on capacity at holding facilities and shelters on any given day. Border Patrol and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facilities regularly reach their Covid-19 reduced-capacity limits, while Mexican states routinely block the U.S. from returning families when their own shelters are full, the Biden administration has said.
When that happens, the migrant families are typically released in Texas, Arizona or California, after which they often travel elsewhere to stay with relatives or friends. Some are given instructions to check in with immigration authorities soon after they arrive at their destination, which helps the government keep track of them during an asylum process that can take years.
Others are given only a receipt of their arrest and permission to move on into the interior of the country, according to Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol. Those families are asked to contact immigration authorities after they reach their final destination, but aren’t given a report date, CPB said.
Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a binational aid group in Nogales, Ariz., said that which families are being sent back where appears arbitrary. "It doesn’t seem to have rhyme or reason," Ms. Williams said.
A CBP spokesman said decisions about which families are sent back to Mexico or allowed to proceed into the U.S. and apply for asylum were on a "case-by-case basis," based on factors including Covid-19 protocols, holding capacity, Mexican law and migrants’ health situations.
The disparate treatment of migrant families reflects the growing chaos as authorities on both sides of the border try to cope with a more than fourfold increase between October and February in the number of families illegally entering the U.S. More than 53,000 people traveling in families were arrested at the border in March, a person with knowledge of the data said, up from about 4,000 in December.