BROWNSVILLE, Texas – After hearing rumors that Central American families with younger children were being allowed into the U.S., Irma Paz left Honduras with her husband and two kids on a nearly two-month journey to the banks of the Rio Grande.
They waded through the cold waters, turned themselves in to immigration authorities and were allowed in the country to request asylum.
“I thought, ‘Thank you, my Lord.’ We made the cut,” she said while waiting at a Brownsville bus station with her son and daughter, ages 3 and 5. They planned to travel to Oklahoma to join her father-in-law, carrying documents to present at a future immigration court hearing.
Meanwhile, in the border town of Reynosa, Mexico, a mother from El Salvador sobbed after U.S. border authorities expelled her and her 8-year-old daughter. Their circumstances were almost the same as Paz's family, but they suffered a completely different fate — the result of a mysterious new system under President Joe Biden's administration that governs the fate of thousands of migrants with children who have arrived at the border in recent weeks.
The criteria to be allowed into the U.S. are a closely held secret. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has referred only to “acute vulnerabilities” that qualify families for release in the United States to pursue asylum instead of immediate expulsion.
The mystery leaves migrants guessing as they arrive at the border.
For Paz, the system meant a ticket to Tulsa and a chance to reconnect with relatives. For the Salvadoran woman, Roxana Cardosa, it meant being banished to a violent Mexican border city with no food or money and sleeping on the concrete of a plaza.
The expulsions are among many challenges confronting the new administration at the border as it tries to maintain some elements of former President Donald Trump's deterrent policies while taking a softer stance toward the most vulnerable migrants. The issue also looms over Biden's efforts to pass landmark legislation that would grant a path to citizenship to all of the estimated 11 million people who are in the U.S. illegally.