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Biden officials shelve plan to require some migrants to remain in Texas after local backlash

Washington — A Biden administration plan to require some migrant families to remain in Texas while immigration authorities determined their eligibility for asylum collapsed due to local opposition in the Democratic-led border city of El Paso, according to two U.S. officials and government documents obtained by CBS News.

Officials in El Paso initially agreed to provide 400 hotel rooms to house migrants enrolled in the initiative, which was set to start in mid-September, according to internal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) documents. But local officials reversed course on hosting the migrants after parts of the plan became public, the U.S. officials said, requesting anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The episode, which had not been previously reported, illustrates the immigration dilemma vexing the Biden administration, which faces escalating pressure from Republicans and a growing group of Democrats to reduce the record levels of migration along the U.S. southern border in recent years. The migrant influx has strained federal and local resources, including in large cities like New York City and Chicago, with Democratic leaders who have found themselves openly criticizing a Democratic White House.

In a statement, DHS said department officials regularly review policy proposals and talk to local and state officials to discuss ways to manage migration flows. Not all proposals, the department noted, are implemented.

Estrella Escobar, a spokeswoman for Democratic El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser, said the city agreed to increase the number of hotel rooms for migrants released from federal custody. But she said the city “never agreed” and “never will” agree to participate in a policy that would require migrants to remain in El Paso under strict monitoring. Those conditions were the source of the mayor’s “opposition,” she added.

“We have conversations with all our federal partners on the humanitarian crisis we are facing on a daily basis,” Leeser said in a statement to CBS News. “The City of El Paso never agreed to any program in which migrant families would be subject to home curfews or ankle monitoring while under our care.”

A plan to deter migrant family crossings

The scrapped plan was part of a broader Biden administration program set up in May to deter illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border by speeding up deportations of migrant families who failed their initial asylum screenings.

The policy, known as the Family Expedited Removal Management program, requires certain migrant families traveling with children to undergo a daily curfew and GPS monitoring until asylum officers decide whether they should be allowed to apply for humanitarian protection or be deported. It was set up as an alternative to detaining migrant families, a practice the Biden administration discontinued in 2021.

The Biden administration has been expanding the so-called FERM program to dozens of cities across the U.S. amid record arrivals of migrant families along the southern border in recent months, enrolling several thousand parents and children so far. But the plan to expand the policy to El Paso would have significantly changed the program, limiting the movement of some migrant families by requiring them to remain near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Officials believed the move would’ve discouraged migrant families from crossing into the U.S. illegally due to the risk of being placed in a program that would force them to remain near the Mexican border, insteading of being allowed into the country with court cases that typically take years to complete.

But after The Los Angeles Times reported that the administration was weighing the move, Republicans and Democrats alike voiced strong objections.

Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to sue the Biden administration, saying federal officials should be requiring migrants to wait in Mexico — like the Trump administration did — not Texas. Progressives and advocates also denounced the proposal, saying it infringed on the rights of migrants by limiting their movement.

Luis Miranda, a DHS spokesman, said officials are still working to “scale up” the initiative “significantly.”

“FERM is one of the tools this Administration is using to manage border encounters in a safe, orderly and humane way, while imposing consequences under the law for those who fail to avail themselves of a lawful pathway,” Miranda said in a statement to CBS News.

Another setback for Biden’s border strategy

The collapse of the El Paso curfew initiative is another setback for President Biden’s border policy, one of his worst-polling issues.

In June, when illegal crossings along the southern border dropped to a two-year low, administration officials touted a strategy that paired expanded opportunities for migrants to enter the U.S. legally with stricter asylum standards for those who opted to cross the border illegally.

But unauthorized migrant crossings began spiking the following month. In September, Border Patrol apprehended more than 218,000 migrants who entered the U.S. illegally, the highest level in 2023, federal data shows. The tally included a record 103,000 parents and children traveling as families, a population that officials struggle to process due to the legal and humanitarian concerns around the detention of minors.

In response to the influx, the administration has ramped up deportations, including by carrying out the first direct removal flights to Venezuela this month. But Democratic officials in New York and Illinois have continued to say their communities are receiving too many migrants too quickly.

“We’re out of room,” New York Mayor Eric Adams said this week, warning that some migrants could find themselves on the street given the dwindling space in the city’s shelter system, which is housing more than 60,000 new arrivals.

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