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Exclusive-U.S. starts flying migrant families into Mexico far from border - source

·2 min read
FILE PHOTO: Asylum-seeking migrants cross the Rio Grande river in Roma, Texas

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Thursday began flying Central American and Mexican families to southern Mexico in an effort to deter migration by bolstering a COVID-era expulsion policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, a person familiar with the matter said.

Nearly 200 Mexican and Central American family members were expelled deep into Mexico on Thursday in what are expected to be regular flights, the person said. The flights, which will include adults, aim to disrupt a pattern of repeat crossings under a U.S. border policy known as Title 42.

U.S. President Joe Biden has reversed many of the restrictive immigration policies of his Republican predecessor, former President Donald Trump, but has left Title 42 in place amid 20-year highs in border arrests.

Although health experts, pro-migrant advocates and some Democrats say the policy cuts off access to asylum without a clear health rationale, Biden officials argue it is necessary to keep U.S. detention centers from becoming overwhelmed during the pandemic.

Under Trump, some Mexican migrants caught at the U.S.-Mexico border were flown to southern Mexico. But the use of the strategy under Biden - and under the Title 42 order - is new, according to the person familiar with the matter, who requested anonymity to discuss government operations.

The United States will work with non-governmental organizations and shelters in southern Mexico to ensure that migrants can safely return to their home countries, the person said.

Mexico's migration institute and foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Biden administration also announced last week that it would subject migrant families to a fast-track deportation process known as "expedited removal" to their home countries from U.S. detention centers.

The expulsion flights to southern Mexico will be faster than that process, the person familiar with the situation said.

Pro-migrant groups on Monday restarted litigation that aims to stop the Biden administration from expelling families under Title 42, which the administration renewed that day.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of the groups challenging Title 42, has argued the policy denies migrants a legal right to claim asylum and returns them to situations of grave danger in Mexico.

Lee Gelernt, the lead ACLU lawyer in the case, said the flights to southern Mexico could also inflict harm.

"The Biden administration is apparently looking for new ways to expel people and in the process subject these desperate migrants to additional trauma," he said.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, Additional reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Gerry Doyle)

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