Uneasy calm in El Paso as Title 42 comes to an end

May 12, 2023
About 10,000 migrants have been crossing the border every day ahead of Title 42's expiry
About 10,000 migrants have been crossing the border every day ahead of Title 42's expiry

EL PASO, Texas — Thousands of migrants rushed to the US-Mexico border just hours before a Trump-era policy that allowed for their swift removal expired.

As the policy -- known as Title 42 -- neared its end on Thursday night, about 10,000 migrants were crossing the nearly 2,000-mile (3,218km) border each day -- record numbers nearly double the average seen just two months ago.

In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that authorities were "prepared for this transition".

Ahead of the deadline, an uneasy calm descended on the border town of El Paso where makeshift migrant camps on the city's streets have largely been removed.

Still, local authorities and humanitarian organizations are bracing for what some fear may be a difficult-to-manage influx of migrants.

The city's mayor, Oscar Leeser, has warned that an estimated 10,000 migrants are across from El Paso in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, waiting for an opportunity to cross.

Along the southern border, about 60,000 are believed to be waiting to cross, Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz told CBS, the BBC's US partner.

"We're stocking up on food and supplies as much as possible," said Nicole Reulet, marketing director of Rescue Mission El Paso, a local shelter that houses migrants. "Nobody really knows what to expect, or what the numbers will look like. It makes it hard for us to prepare."

On Thursday, about 25,000 migrants were in Border Patrol custody, far exceeding the agency's capacity to hold them.

To reduce overflow, officials had planned to release migrants and tell them to report to an immigration office within 60 days. That effort, however, was blocked by a federal judge in Florida. The Biden administration is expected to appeal.

Several migrants in El Paso told the BBC that they had hurried to the border ahead of the policy change, unsure what the change would mean and confused by rumours and disinformation.

Among them were Jon Uzcategui and his girlfriend Esmaily, both 24 and from Venezuela, who said they were frustrated after multiple attempts to book an asylum appointment using a Customs and Border Patrol-run app - CBP One - had failed.

They said they had been told -- falsely -- by smugglers and other migrants that they would be immediately deported if they presented themselves to US Customs and Border Patrol, prompting them to illegally cross the barriers separating El Paso and Mexico.

"We trusted them, and were starting to move into the US. But we were stopped at a roadblock," said Uzcategui, who was eventually paroled into El Paso after his asylum claim was heard. "The agents told us that was all false."

"All the migrants were talking about 11 May," he added. "But there were lots of rumours. We just knew something was changing."

Far from the border, other cities -- including Chicago and New York -- have reported that they are struggling to cope with the large numbers of migrants travelling up from the southern border.

With Title 42 in place, US authorities were able to swiftly remove migrants crossing the border from Mexico - including asylum seekers - using the pandemic as justification.

Some 2.8 million people were expelled under Title 42 since it was implemented in March 2020, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

Ahead of Title 42's expiry, US officials unveiled a raft of new measures aimed at stemming the flow of migrants, including the opening of regional processing centres in Latin America and expanded use of CBP One to book appointments.

Many, however, will face legal challenges. Those crossing illegally will be deported to their home country or Mexico, barred from re-entering the US for at least five years, and be "presumed ineligible for asylum", according to Customs and Border Protection.

Under Title 42, there were no such consequences.

"Starting tonight, people who arrive at the border without using a lawful pathway will be presumed ineligible for asylum," Mr Mayorkas said in a statement just before the policy expired. "We are ready to humanely process and remove people without a legal basis to be in the US."

"The border is not open," he added.

Despite a warning earlier this week from US President Joe Biden that the border would be "chaotic" for some time in the wake of Title 42, Border Patrol's Raul Ortiz said he did not expect a "huge surge" in the immediate future.

"We're really past the surge," Mr Ortiz was quoted as saying by the El Paso Times.

The new measures taken by immigration officials and efforts to assuage the fears of local residents have done little to reassure many of those who help migrants in El Paso.

"It's going to be a very large challenge for us," said Susan Goodell, the chief executive of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank, which has been feeding hundreds of migrants each day on the city's streets.

"We're preparing, to the best of our ability, to find the food that we need to feed people living on the street or in shelters," she said. "With the lifting of Title 42, we think it'll be a short time before we start seeing a large number of migrants coming into the community again."

In the longer term, the lifting of Title 42 is likely to be a contentious political issue in the US. House Republicans, for example, are already considering a package of immigration bills, although they have little chance of passing a Democratic-controlled Senate.

The number of migrants at the US border spiked sharply since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, driven in part by economic woes, insecurity and political repression in countries including Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. Since the beginning of his administration, a record 4.6 million have been arrested crossing illegally.

It has now been decades since the US has passed any bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform. — BBC

May 12, 2023
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