DEL RIO, Texas: US officials are trying to drive home an increasingly emphatic message to the growing number of mostly Central American asylum seekers crossing the US-Mexico border every day: "Do not come. The border is closed."
The reality on the ground is less clear.
While the United States is expelling migrant families and individuals to Mexico under a Trump-era public health order to limit the spread of COVID-19, thousands of families have been released into the United States in recent weeks pending the outcome of their immigration cases.
On the same day Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas went on five US Sunday television shows to issue the warnings, US border agents in Texas' Rio Grande Valley began releasing migrant families to relieve pressure on crowded border facilities without set dates to appear in immigration court.
The varied handling of families is bewildering migrants and causing frustration among both immigration advocates and border agents. It has also left President Joe Biden, a Democrat, open to criticism from Republicans that his mixed messaging at the border is encouraging more people to cross even as border facilities fill up past capacity amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The majority of migrants encountered at the border this year have been single adults mainly from Mexico who are often quickly deported and sometimes cross multiple times.
But the number of families arrested nearly tripled in February from a month earlier to about 19,000. During that same period, the number of unaccompanied children caught at the border rose as well, but at a slower pace.
"There is a lot of confusion because there is no hard and fast rule" when it comes to migrant families, said Charlene D'Cruz, the director of Lawyers for Good Government's Project Corazon border rights program. "It seems ad hoc."
Also over the weekend, even as the administration said the border was closed to families, it announced an US$86 million contract to house some migrant families deemed vulnerable in US hotels for processing. The contract is part of a new program managed by nonprofit organisations as an alternative to federal family detention centers.
Online forums are awash with questions from would-be migrants about the current status of the border and whether families with children are being allowed to cross. The posts, seen by Reuters, can net over a hundred often contradictory answers from fellow migrants and some claiming to be smugglers.
SOME EXPELLED, SOME RELEASED
Mayorkas said on Sunday that only unaccompanied minors were exempt from the expulsions policy, known as Title 42, that the Trump administration put in place in March 2020 at the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
But internal US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data shared with Reuters showed only about 15 per cent of families apprehended on Mar 17 were expelled under Title 42. While just a one-day snapshot, the figure shows the uneven application of the policy across the border.
One reason: Some local authorities in Mexico say they do not have the resources to deal with the sharp increase in the number of families, many traveling with very young children.
Tamaulipas state, across from the Rio Grande Valley, stopped receiving expelled families with children under seven years of age earlier this year.
In a move that circumvents the Mexican state's refusal, the Biden administration has begun flying hundreds of families - including parents traveling with babies and toddlers - hundreds of kilometres across Texas to El Paso only to expel them to Ciudad Juarez, according to Reuters' witnesses and interviews with migrants.
At the same time, US border patrol agents in the same Rio Grande Valley region - which is experiencing the highest number of crossings from Mexico - have begun releasing families into the United States without "notices to appear" in immigration court on specific dates, according to two CBP officials who requested anonymity to discuss internal operations.
US Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Sarah Peck said that given fluctuating migration flows, "one day or week of statistics doesn't reflect the full picture", adding that the policy is still to expel families "and in situations where expulsion is not possible due to Mexico's inability to receive the families, they are placed into removal proceedings".
A CBP spokeswoman said all migrants go through routine background checks before being released.
The Trump administration also released some families without notices to appear in immigration court during a sharp upsurge in border crossings in 2019, according to a report published by two research centers at the University of California, San Diego.
Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar from Texas released photos on Monday showing people crammed closely together, some laying on mats or on the floor in a border patrol facility in Donna, Texas.
Cuellar wrote on Twitter that "more has to be done to address this growing humanitarian crisis" affecting migrant children.
LUCK OF THE DRAW
The expulsions can be devastating for parents like Manuel de Jesus Martinez who said he left Honduras in mid-January with his 10-month old baby daughter after he said her mother was killed.
He crossed the Rio Grande river near the Mexican city of Reynosa into the United States "because I heard they were giving asylum," he said in an interview. US border agents put Martinez and his baby on a flight to El Paso only to expel them back to Mexico.
For other migrant families released into the United States in recent days, there is a deep sense of relief after long, perilous journeys from their home countries.
Valin, a Haitian migrant who asked to only be identified by his first name, was freed from border patrol custody in Del Rio, Texas, with his wife and two children, a 14-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, just days after they crossed the Rio Grande.
The family had left Haiti in 2016 and slowly made their way to the border. Valin had feared he and his family would be immediately deported when they got to the US border. Instead, border patrol let them go. They hope to stay with relatives in Florida.
"Thank God, we were lucky," he said.