Top border official says U.S. strives for “fair and equitable” processing of migrants amid criticism of unequal treatment

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The Biden administration is striving to create a “fair and equitable” system for asylum-seekers, the top U.S. Customs and Border Protection official said in response to criticism that his agency has allowed some groups, such as Ukrainians, to enter the country with relative ease, while quickly expelling other migrants.

During an interview with CBS News Thursday, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus was asked why his agency had not created a process similar to one used to admit 22,000 Ukrainian refugees along the southern border this spring for asylum-seekers from Central America, many of whom face rapid expulsion from the U.S.

“Our goal certainly is to be able to process all vulnerable populations in a fair and equitable way,” Magnus responded. “I think this is something that we’re going to continue to work towards. It can be very challenging, depending on the circumstances.”

In April alone, U.S. border authorities admitted 20,000 Ukrainians who had flown to Mexico to escape the Russian invasion, exempting them from the Title 42 restrictions at ports of entry and granting them humanitarian parole, a permission to stay in the country. Arrivals of Ukrainians in Mexico largely stopped after the creation of a private sponsorship program that has allowed tens of thousands of other Ukrainians to come to the U.S.

In the meantime, U.S. border agents have continued to use the Trump-era Title 42 public health rules to expel tens of thousands of other migrants each month, most of them from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the nationalities the Mexican government allows the U.S. to return to its territory, federal statistics show.

Studies show that Central Americans journey to the U.S. border for a mixed set of reasons, including extreme poverty, hunger, gang violence, a desire to reunite with family in the U.S. and to escape environmental disasters.

In July, CBP expelled migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador over 73,000 times, a tally that made up nearly 99% of all Title 42 expulsions that month, according to agency data. Other migrants from countries like Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are typically not expelled because the governments there do not accept U.S. deportations.

Migrant advocates and some Democratic lawmakers have said Title 42 has been applied selectively and in a discriminatory fashion, urging the Biden administration to process more migrants, regardless of their nationality, at official ports of entry, where seeking asylum is legal under U.S. law.

Magnus on Thursday acknowledged that migrants expelled to Mexico face “very difficult” conditions, but he said each nationality arriving to the U.S. southern border has “specific circumstances,” noting that Ukrainians are fleeing an armed conflict in their homeland.

“We’re talking about different populations from different countries with different needs who are going to need to be processed differently,” Magnus said. “There are a lot of factors involved. What works for one population does not necessarily work for all.”

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus in an interview in his Washington office on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022. CBS News

Magnus said his goal is to scale up processing of asylum-seekers at ports of entry, which experts believe discourages some migrants from crossing the border illegally. But he said the challenge is expanding processing of migrants who lack travel documents while continuing to facilitate commercial and pedestrian traffic.

“This is a difficult balance to achieve because we have limited resources, limited numbers of personnel available at these ports of entry,” he said.

While the Biden administration has not set up a process at the scale of the one used to admit Ukrainians this spring, it has gradually increased the number of asylum-seekers selected to be exempted from Title 42 and processed at ports of entry after security vetting, according to government data disclosed in a federal court case.

In July, the U.S. admitted 11,574 asylum-seekers at six ports of entry in Arizona, California and Texas under humanitarian exemptions to Title 42, a 32% increase from June, when 8,792 migrants were processed at the official border crossings, the government statistics show.

While the statistics do not include nationality data, separate government figures show there’s been a significant increase in the number of Haitians processed by the Office of Field Operations, the CBP agency that oversees the ports of entry.

Just over 5,000 Haitians were processed at ports of entry along the southern border last month, an 83% increase from May, while only 348 were arrested for entering the U.S. illegally, a 95% drop from May, according to CBP figures.

In July and June, U.S. border officials carried out fewer than 100 expulsions of Haitians migrants, the CBP data show, a stark departure from the 18,000 Haitians who were expelled to the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation between September 2021 and May 2022.

A group of migrants waits to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol after illegally crossing into Eagle Pass, Texas U.S. from Mexico on Tuesday July 26, 2022. Allison Dinner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

During the interview Thursday, Magnus said the end of Title 42, which a federal court has required the Biden administration to continue, would allow his agents to apply “consequences” to migrants who try to enter the U.S. multiple times unlawfully in between the ports of entry.

Because Title 42 expulsions do not come with multi-year banishment from the U.S. or the threat of detention or criminal prosecutions — unlike formal deportations — the policy has fueled a high rate of repeat crossings among migrants expelled by land to Mexico.

The high recidivism rate, which stood at 22% in July, has contributed to unprecedented levels of migrant arrests recorded over the past year. CBP is expected to record more than 2 million migrant encounters in fiscal year 2022, which ends at the end of September, an all-time high.

Asked about Republican accusations that his agency has lost operational control of the U.S.-Mexico border given the large numbers of migrant arrivals, Magnus said the administration has been deploying additional resources and personnel there to “become as effective as possible in how we process this population.”

“I would push back on the idea that this means chaos,” he said. “I think we have the ability, and we’ve already shown it, to deal with even large numbers of migrants in an orderly, compassionate and effective manner.”

More Camilo Montoya-Galvez

Camilo Montoya-Galvez is the immigration reporter at CBS News. Based in Washington, he covers immigration policy and politics.

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