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The Biden Administration Is Planning To Restart Controversial Border Flights To Expel Immigrant Families

The resumption of the flights for families comes months after immigrant advocates said the process added to the trauma of the expulsions into Mexico.

Last updated on August 8, 2021, at 9:52 a.m. ET

Posted on August 6, 2021, at 7:52 p.m. ET

Luis Romero / AP

Salvadorans exit a plane as they are deported from Texas at the international airport in Comalapa, El Salvador, in 2010.

The Biden administration plans to resume the practice of flying Central American families arrested after crossing into the country illegally to spots along the border that can make it easier to expel them back to Mexico, according to government documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.

The effort indicates that Mexico is willing to take families in certain parts of the border who are turned around by US border agents under a Trump-era policy. As part of the process, families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — also known as the Northern Triangle — are sent from one location on the border to areas like San Diego or El Paso where officials can turn back up to 100 people a day to Mexico.

The resumption of the flights for families from the Northern Triangle comes months after immigrant advocates said the process added to the trauma of the expulsions into Mexico, as families believed they were being allowed to stay in the US only to be turned around to a part of Mexico they hadn’t crossed from. In May, CBS News reported that the Department of Homeland Security had suspended the use of so-called lateral flights.

A spokesperson for the DHS said in a statement that the agency was working with Mexico to process individuals "as safely and expeditiously as possible,"

"Some of these individuals are then expelled to Mexico pursuant to the CDC Order under the CDC’s Title 42 public health authority," they added. "The operational need for these sector-to-sector transfers is assessed daily based on the processing capability and facility capacity of each Sector.”

The Biden administration has been increasingly concerned about the high volumes of immigrants crossing the border and the issues facing the capacity to process them as it contends with the rapid spread of the Delta variant in the US. A senior DHS official, David Shahoulian, told a federal court judge this week that the Department of Homeland Security was "likely to have encountered about 210,000 individuals in July" — the highest monthly number since 2000. "July also likely included a record number of unaccompanied child encounters ... and the second-highest number of family unit encounters,” Shahoulian added.

The increase in numbers has been acutely felt in the Rio Grande Valley, where Shahoulian said the capacity to hold people had been stretched. The filing came as part of the administration’s reasoning to continue with the Trump-era policy, which has led to tens of thousands of immigrants being expelled at the southern border, including those who fled their home countries and are seeking protection.

Since March 2020, border officials have used a section of the public health code known as Title 42 to immediately turn back immigrants at the border in order to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Previously, immigrants had the opportunity to claim fear of being returned to their home countries, something that’s unavailable when deported under Title 42.

“Overcrowding challenges DHS’s ability to effectively execute many of its core public health mitigation and countermeasure activities. Additionally, higher rates of COVID-19 transmission within a DHS facility could quickly impede the Department’s ability to utilize that facility’s maximum capacity, further lowering the overall processing and holding capacity along the southwest border,” Shahoulian said this week.

The US has also begun the process of flying those expelled under Title 42 into southern Mexico, DHS officials said, as an effort to combat people crossing the border repeatedly. Reuters first reported the news on Thursday.

The number of families crossing the southern border and being allowed to stay in the US has increased after Mexican officials passed a law prohibiting undocumented immigrant children from being held in their detention centers. With no space to hold the families in US facilities, and Mexico refusing to take them back, they started to be released in Texas border cities.

In April, Biden said he was negotiating with the president of Mexico to address the issue.

“I think we are going to see that can change,” he said, adding that the families "should all be going back” and that only unaccompanied children would be the exception.

The ACLU had been in negotiations with the US government for several months over blocking the use of Title 42 against families. The ACLU represents six families who fled their countries and were seeking safety in the US. Those negotiations broke down this week and the lawsuit is set to resume.

Prior to the policy, the group contends, the families would have had a chance at seeking asylum at the border. Instead, under the Title 42 policy, immigrants and families at the border must “affirmatively” state they are fearful of being tortured in their home country in order to get the chance at a screening for protections.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.