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How the Trump Administration is Using COVID-19 to Continue its Border Deterrence Efforts

The author would like to thank BPC 2020 spring intern Angelina Downs for her significant contributions in gathering ACA data for this blog post.

Author’s note: The prior version of this blog post miscalculated the number of returns under the Guatemalan Asylum Cooperation Agreement; these numbers have been revised. This update also contains updated data about the Migration Protection Protocols program from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse and Southwest border apprehensions from CBP. Finally, this update includes new data on the Trump administration’s border policies that DHS published in October 2020; this data appears in footnote 3.

In March 2020, the Trump administration issued an order through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection to expel any migrant to the last country of transit or origin. In contrast to the previous border policies, which derived their authorities from the Immigration and Nationality Act, the CDC issued the March order through Title 42 of the Public Health Safety Act that allows the temporary suspension of entry of certain persons into the United States “when doing so is required in the interest of the public health.” Since then, “expulsions” under this order have become the most common means of returning migrants arriving from Mexico, overtaking both the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, and removals under the Guatemalan Asylum Cooperation Agreement, or ACA. However, the administration’s decision to indefinitely extend the order in mid-May raises questions about its long-term viability, especially since it relies on the acquiescence of other countries to implement the measure.

A review of the number of migrants processed through the different border programs currently in effect shows that the administration has shifted its processing of migrant arrivals towards Title 42 expulsions.1 As Figure 1 shows, MPP served as the Trump administration’s primary vehicle to process migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019, hitting a peak of 12,403 individuals in August 2019. In late 2019, federal authorities started returning migrants under the Guatemalan ACA, causing MPP returns to drop to 1,701 in February 2020 while ACA returns grew to 939 by March 2020.2 After Guatemala suspended ACA returns in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19 from the United States, the federal government began using Title 42 expulsions as a substitute process in mid-March. In April 2020, the government expelled 14,416 migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border under Title 42, a number that exceeded the combined number of MPP and ACA returns in each of the preceding three months.3

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Figure 1: Number of MPP Returns, ACA Returns, and Title 42 Expulsions (January 2019 – April 2020)*

Sources: DHS, TRAC, CBS/Al Jazeera**

*As of this publication date, TRAC has not released April 2020 MPP case numbers Therefore, Figures 1 to 3 exclude MPP data for April 2020.

** The ACA data comes from two journalists who have been tracking Guatemalan ACA returns on Twitter since the program’s implementation: CBS’ Camilo Montoya-Galvez and Al Jazeera’s Jeff Abbott. These journalists have received data from the Guatemalan government that they publish on Twitter. BPC gathered data from these tweets to track the ACA program’s growth since November 2019.

Comparing this data to the total number of Southwest border apprehensions shows that the Title 42 program processed—and potentially deterred—a significant number of migrants arriving at the Southwest border in March and April 2020. As Figure 2 shows, the number of people processed through these removal programs gradually became a larger portion of overall Southwest border apprehensions between January 2019 and March 2020, especially as the Department of Homeland Security implemented and expanded MPP and ACA and apprehensions dropped to low levels after September 2019. In May 2019, CBP returned 5,083 individuals through the MPP, forming 3.8% of the 132,856 apprehensions recorded that month. In April 2020, CBP carried out 14,416 Title 42 expulsions, forming 90% of all apprehensions, suggesting that the expulsions have had a significant effect on border apprehensions.

Figure 2: Number of MPP Returns, ACA Returns, and Title 42 Expulsions Compared to Southwest Border Apprehensions (January 2019 – April 2020)*

Sources: DHS (1)(2)(3), TRAC, CBS/Al Jazeera

Looking at specific demographic groups in CBP apprehensions data shows Title 42 expulsions affected families and unaccompanied children arriving at the Southwest border just like its predecessors. As Figure 3 shows4, the number of family unit apprehensions dropped from 84,486 in May 2019 to 716 in April 2020 as CBP processed families through each of these successive programs. The number of unaccompanied children followed the same pattern, with apprehensions dropping from 11,475 to 712 during the course of these policy transitions.5 However, single adult apprehensions have remained steady since July 2019, suggesting that MPP and ACA have not deterred the arrival of this group in the same way as families and unaccompanied children. Given that the Title 42 order applies to all migrants arriving at the border—including single adults seeking work in the United States—this measure may affect single adult apprehension levels in the future.

Figure 3: Number of MPP Returns, ACA Returns, and Title 42 Expulsions Compared to Southwest Border Apprehensions by Demographic Group (January 2019 – April 2020)

Sources: DHS (1)(2)(3), TRAC, CBS/Al Jazeera

The administration’s decision to indefinitely extend the Title 42 order may result in implementation issues if countries responsible for its implementation, like Mexico and Guatemala, prioritize their own public health concerns instead of cooperating with the United States. In Guatemala’s case, the country has suspended the ACA to prevent returnees from spreading COVID-19. The country also has struggled to get the United States to stop deporting Guatemalan nationals over concerns of spreading the virus, showing that country wants greater independence from the administration’s enforcement goals. Although Mexico has not suspended the reception of MPP returnees or Title 42 expulsions, should the country refuse to accept migrants from these programs it would reveal their weakness in promoting long-term changes in migration patterns. Perhaps recognizing this concern, the Trump administration issued a memo in April 2020 threatening countries that refuse deportations with visa sanctions. Relying on other countries for enforcement is no substitute for improving the immigration system’s ability to weather major changes like the COVID-19 pandemic.

End Notes:

1 The Trump administration has not published any official data on the number of individuals processed through the MPP and ACA programs. In the case of MPP data, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, continues to serve as the only source that publishes monthly data on MPP returns. Footnote 7 outlines the sources of data for ACA returns.
2 Other border policies also had a significant impact on removing asylum seekers from the border during this period. The DHS Office of Immigrant Statistics released data in October 2020 that showed DHS barred 25,096 migrants from seeking asylum between July 16 and September 30 2019 under a regulation known as “the transit bar” and subsequently removed from the United States via expedited removal. The regulation bars migrants who enter or attempt to enter the United States at the U.S.-Mexico border from asylum if they did not apply for protection in a country they traveled through en route to the United States. Although litigation led federal courts to issue and uphold an injunction against the regulation, the Trump administration introduced a proposed rule in June 2020 that would significantly restrict asylum at the border.
3 In addition to the southern border expulsions, CBP had carried out 7 expulsions under Title 42at the U.S.-Canadian border as of April 9, 2020.
4 CBP began including Title 42 expulsions alongside apprehensions for these three demographic groups starting in March 2020 for its FY2020 data under the umbrella term “encounters.” Figures 3 includes encounters for March and April 2020. These figures will use the term encounters since it includes Title 42 expulsions and other apprehensions.
5 Given that MPP returns, ACA returns, and Title 42 expulsions encompass the three demographic groups in different proportions, we will not provide an estimate of the percentage that these groups form for these returns and expulsions.