- By Bernd Debussmann Jr
- Reporting from El Paso, Texas
Thousands of migrants rushed to the US-Mexico border hours before the Trump-era policy expired.
With the policy – known as Title 42 – ending Thursday night, about 10,000 migrants were crossing the nearly 2,000-mile (3,218 km) border each day – twice the average registration numbers seen two months ago.
In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorgas said “authorities are prepared for this change.”
Ahead of the deadline, an uneasy calm prevailed in the border city of El Paso, where makeshift migrant camps lining the city’s streets have largely been dismantled.
However, some fear that local authorities and humanitarian organizations may find it difficult to manage the influx of migrants.
The city’s mayor, Oscar Leiser, has warned that about 10,000 migrants from El Paso in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, are waiting for a chance to cross.
At the southern border, around 60,000 people are believed to be waiting to cross, Border Patrol chief Raul Ortiz told the BBC’s US partner CBS.
“We’re stocking up on food and supplies as much as possible,” said Nicole Riulet, director of marketing for Rescue Mission El Paso, a local shelter that houses immigrants. “No one knows what to expect, or what the numbers will be. It makes it difficult for us to prepare.”
As of Thursday, about 25,000 migrants were in Border Patrol custody, far exceeding the agency’s capacity to hold them.
To reduce the overcrowding, officials had planned to release migrants and notify the immigration office within 60 days. However, that effort was blocked by a federal judge in Florida. The Biden administration is expected to appeal.
Many migrants in El Paso told the BBC they rushed to the border ahead of the policy change, unsure of what the change meant and confused by rumors and misinformation.
Among them were John Uscategui and his girlfriend Esmaili, a 24-year-old from Venezuela. They said they were frustrated after multiple attempts to apply for asylum using CBP One, the Customs and Border Protection app, failed.
They said smugglers and other migrants were falsely told they would face immediate deportation if they turned themselves in to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, prompting them to illegally cross the border separating El Paso and Mexico.
“We trusted them and started to go to America. But we stopped at a roadblock,” said Mr Uscategui, who was eventually paroled in El Paso after hearing an asylum claim. “The agents told us it was all lies.”
“All the immigrants were talking about May 11,” he added. “But there were a lot of rumors. We knew something was changing.”
Farther from the border, other cities — including Chicago and New York — have reported struggling to cope with large numbers of migrants traveling from the southern border.
With Title 42 in place, U.S. officials have been able to quickly remove migrants — including asylum seekers — crossing the border from Mexico by citing the pandemic.
According to US Customs and Border Protection, about 2.8 million people have been deported under Title 42 since it was implemented in March 2020.
Ahead of the expiration of Title 42, U.S. officials unveiled a new set of measures aimed at stemming the flow of migrants, including the opening of regional processing centers in Latin America and the expanded use of CBP One to book appointments.
However, many face legal challenges. Illegal crossers face deportation to their home country or Mexico, are barred from re-entering the U.S. for at least five years, and are considered “ineligible for asylum” according to Customs and Border Protection.
Under Title 42, there are no such consequences.
“From tonight, those who arrive at the border without using a legal route will be considered ineligible for asylum,” Mr Mayorkas said in a statement before the policy expired. “We are prepared to humanely process and remove people without a legal basis to be in the United States.”
“The border is not open,” he said.
Despite US President Joe Biden’s warning earlier this week that the border would be “messy” after Title 42, the Border Patrol’s Raul Ortiz said he doesn’t expect a “big surge” in the immediate future.
“We’re really over the moon,” Mr. Ortiz said, according to the El Paso Times.
New measures by immigration officials and efforts to assuage the fears of local residents are unconvincing to many of those helping immigrants in El Paso.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us,” said Susan Goodell, chief executive of El Paso’s Fighting Hunger Food Bank, which feeds hundreds of migrants every day on the city’s streets.
“We are preparing as much as we can to find the food we need to feed people living on the street or in shelters,” he said. “With the repeal of Title 42, we think it’s only going to be a matter of time before we start seeing large numbers of immigrants coming back into the community.”
In the long run, repealing Title 42 will be a contentious political issue in the United States. For example, House Republicans are already considering a package of immigration bills, though they are unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Economic problems, insecurity and political repression in countries including Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua have seen a sharp increase in the number of migrants crossing the US border since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021. Since the start of his administration, a record 4.6 million illegal traffickers have been arrested.
It’s been decades now since the United States passed bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform.
(With additional reporting by Angelica Casas)