Migrants amass along US-Mexico border as COVID-era restrictions near end
EL PASO, Texas — U.S. border agents in El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday urged hundreds of migrants amassing on city streets to surrender to authorities as illegal crossings rose in the run-up to the end of COVID-19 border restrictions known as Title 42 later this week.
At the same time, migrants were gathering at different points on the Mexican side of the U.S. southern border in anticipation of crossing when border policy changes just before midnight on May 11.
In Matamoros, Mexico, migrants purchased pool floats and life jackets to prepare to cross the Rio Grande River into Brownsville, Texas, said migrant rights activist Gladys Canas. And in Tijuana, across from San Diego, California, migrants formed long lines in front of a towering border fence on Monday, with the aim of turning themselves in to U.S. border agents.
The scenes come as Title 42 is set to expire on Thursday. The policy, implemented in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has allowed U.S. authorities to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants to Mexico without the chance to seek U.S. asylum.
The Democratic administration of President Joe Biden is allowing the measure to lapse, as the broader COVID-19 public health emergency ends.
Biden, who is seeking reelection in 2024, has struggled with the record numbers of migrants arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border. His public approval ratings stood at 40% in recent days, close to the lowest level since he took office in 2021, with Americans unhappy about his handling of immigration and inflation, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll showed.
Republicans have criticized him for rolling back many of the more restrictive policies of Republican former President Donald Trump, the leading candidate for his party’s nomination.
While Biden has kept Title 42 in place until now, not all migrants caught crossing the border illegally have been expelled, with more than half in recent months allowed into the U.S. to pursue their immigration cases.
Mexico also accepts just certain nationalities and limits the migrants it takes in based on capacity.
In recent weeks, illegal border crossings have climbed and more migrants are coming in the hopes they will now be allowed to apply for asylum in the United States after Title 42 ends, leaving U.S. border cities struggling to provide housing and transportation to the thousands arriving each day.
To discourage illegal crossings, the Biden administration plans to issue a sweeping new regulation this week that would deny asylum to most migrants caught crossing if they passed through Mexico or other countries en route to the U.S. or failed to use other U.S. legal pathways.
The administration aims to quickly screen migrants for asylum under the new standard and, if they fail, deport them.
However, limited U.S. resources to deport migrants could stifle the effectiveness of the measure, which mirrors similar Trump policies that were blocked in court. The new rule is also expected to face legal challenges.
Asylum officers were being trained on the new standard on Tuesday but some staffers have pushed back for its hasty rollout and others are concerned it undercuts access to asylum services, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
“People are livid,” said one Department of Homeland Security official, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter.
‘Maxed out’ shelters
El Paso has been among border spots where crossings have risen even as U.S. authorities have deployed more personnel.
Men in civilian clothes handled out Spanish-language flyers in downtown El Paso on Tuesday morning calling on migrants to head to the nearest U.S. Border Patrol station for processing, migrants said.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) did not respond to requests for comment. But Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council representing U.S. border agents, confirmed that agents distributed the handouts.
Camille Castillo, director of the El Paso Coalition for the Homeless said most local shelters are already “maxed out.”
Daniel Mena, a recently arrived Venezuelan migrant standing near the Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso, said on Tuesday morning that he would not turn himself because he was worried the U.S. might deport him.
But hours later, after seeing other migrants return with U.S. paperwork, he lined up at a Border Patrol station.
“I decided to go for it,” Mena said.