Along the Border, Waiting Anxiously for the End of a Pandemic-Era Rule

EAGLE PASS, Texas — Up and down the southern border, officials in the United States watched as thousands of migrants in Mexico waited.

Wednesday had been the day that a public health policy allowing for the rapid expulsion of migrants during the coronavirus pandemic, known as Title 42, was set to lift by order of a federal court, bringing a rush of asylum-seekers over the border.

The Supreme Court, in its own order this week, delayed the policy’s end date for at least several more days. But the expectation remained that a surge of arrivals unlike any seen on the border in years would soon take place.

And so a tense and uncertain limbo pervaded both sides on Wednesday. Many migrants who hoped to once again be allowed to cross and claim asylum held back, while others forged ahead, wading across the Rio Grande with children lofted above the water or clambering through heavy brush to avoid detection.

From a hilltop outside the border city of Eagle Pass, National Guard members, sent to the border by the State of Texas, surveyed the Rio Grande next to armored personnel carriers, positioned to be visible from Mexico as a deterrent. Along the river, a federal surveillance blimp hovered over a popular crossing point north of town.

Some migrants waited at the border on Wednesday, while others forged ahead across the Rio Grande. Credit…Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

In El Paso, newly placed concertina wire rimmed the riverbanks in an area where thousands of migrants had recently crossed. A National Guard member shouted in Spanish at migrants stepping through the shallow waters: “Crossing is illegal!” Some turned around, while others continued across.

“This is just a way to intimidate us, to deter us from trying to cross,” said Roberto Guanipa, 39, a Venezuelan who watched the scene from Ciudad Juárez, on the Mexican side. “We are trying to stay in line and ask for legal asylum. We are not trying to cross illegally.”

The Biden administration has been anticipating a spike in arrivals with the end of the pandemic-era policy, deploying additional personnel to the border, including employees from agencies that do not typically have a presence there. The Homeland Security Department has said that it needs $3.4 billion in additional funding to meet the challenge, but Congress’s new funding package, released on Tuesday, fell short of that.

One administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to relay internal discussions, said the department was facing potentially 12,000 illegal border crossings a day once the policy ended, with the resources to manage about 4,000.

More on U.S. Immigration

  • Title 42: The Supreme Court is reviewing a request from 19 Republican-led states to keep in place the pandemic-era policy that has been used to block migrants from seeking asylum in the United States.
  • Arizona: The state’s outgoing governor spent $82 million on a makeshift wall made from shipping containers along the border with Mexico. His successor calls it a waste of money.
  • Texas: Officials in the state took steps to all but close an international crossing in El Paso, which has become a main destination for immigrants seeking to enter the United States.
  • Tech Workers: As cutbacks batter the tech industry, some foreigners on work visas are facing a daunting prospect: having to leave the United States unless they are hired within 60 days of being laid off.

The actual date that the policy would lift remained uncertain on Wednesday as the Supreme Court considered an emergency application from 19 Republican-led states, including Texas, seeking to preserve it. Advocates for asylum-seekers had sued to end the policy, arguing that there was no longer a valid health rationale for denying migrants their legal right to ask for safe harbor in the United States.

Also uncertain on Wednesday were the steps that federal officials might take to try to discourage illegal crossings once Title 42 ended.

Sacred Heart Church in El Paso was being used as a shelter for migrants, but was full recently.Credit…Paul Ratje for The New York Times

The White House and immigration officials have considered barring asylum to migrants who traveled through another country to get to the United States, but did not first seek asylum in that country. The administration said any new policies that would restrict access to asylum would be rolled out alongside a new pathway for some migrants.

Even with the public health policy still in place, crossings have continued to rise, particularly in El Paso. The policy has not been used uniformly, largely because the Biden administration allows humanitarian exemptions and the U.S. government cannot repatriate people from certain countries because of strained diplomatic ties.

El Paso has been averaging about 2,500 new arrivals in recent days, overwhelming existing infrastructure. Mayor Oscar Leeser said he had been told by Mexican officials that thousands of migrants were on their way.

The city is using two closed-down schools and its civic center to house migrants in the coming days, when temperatures are expected to dip to dangerous levels. Mr. Leeser called all these measures “Band-Aids.”

“The immigration system is broken and we all know that,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “But at the end of the day, something has to change, because this is not a long-term solution.”

Ricardo Samaniego, the El Paso County judge, said what he did not want was a show of force along the river, pointing to the Texas National Guard’s actions in recent days.

“Witnessing all the state operations and uncoordinated activities concern me from a humanitarian perspective,” said Mr. Samaniego, the county’s top official. He added that blocking migrants from reaching Border Patrol agents and applying for asylum “could be illegal from a federal law perspective.”

Still, the presence of extra law enforcement in Texas appeared to send a message to many on the Mexican side. The line of people waiting to be processed next to a tall metal fence on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez numbered in the hundreds, a far cry from the thousands of people who were waiting just last week.

Many migrants waiting just across the border from El Paso were glued to their phones on Wednesday, looking for the latest news about the public health policy. Others had stayed more inside Mexico, knowing there was no use sleeping on cold ground next to the river until something changed.

“They know there is no point in coming now,” said Carlos Hernandez, 40, who left Venezuela in September. “Others are going back to Mexico, to save money and be ready for the next time. I’m already here. I can’t go back. I went through a lot just to get here.”

He watched with what he described as envy as migrants from Cuba and Nicaragua stood in a line along the towering border wall, waiting to enter the United States. Those countries are among several whose citizens are exempt from the public health rule, because they do not have agreements with the United States to accept deportation flights, and Mexico will not take them back.

“I want to be in that line,” Mr. Hernandez said. “It’s not fair that Title 42 lets some people go in and others stay back.”

At the southern end of the border, near the Gulf of Mexico, local officials in Matamoros, Mexico, said roughly 4,000 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, had gathered in an open-air encampment a few blocks from the border. Many were waiting for the end of Title 42 so they could enter the United States and apply for asylum.

Crossing the Rio Grande in an inflatable mattress near Matamoros, Mexico.Credit…Cesar Rodriguez for The New York Times

Erika Moreno, 28, who came with her 2-year-old son from Venezuela, had been staying at a temporary shelter in the city but could remain for only a month and would soon end up in the encampment. “We have been waiting and waiting,” she said. “There are so many rumors, and for the most part we depend on the information we see on the internet.”

The increase in migrants arriving in El Paso had not diminished the number arriving in and around Eagle Pass, almost 500 miles away. Already, some 1,500 have been flowing each day into Eagle Pass, a city of about 28,000, one city official said, often overwhelming local resources and crowding the only hospital.

“It’s oversaturated,” said Ivan A. Morua, the acting city manager. He said the city was anticipating double or even triple the current number of arrivals with the end of Title 42.

Mr. Morua said he was also bracing for a more immediate crisis: how to provide shelter for those who need it when a strong cold front sweeps across the border region at the end of the week. He said city officials were weighing creating separate, temporary shelters for local residents and for migrants, and even putting people in the civic center.

The city has been the center of Gov. Greg Abbott’s multibillion-dollar, nearly two-year effort to increase law enforcement along the border, known as Operation Lone Star. But neither the wall of containers between the international bridges in Eagle Pass, nor the chain-link fence snaking for miles along the riverbank — both placed there by the Texas National Guard — appear to have altered the pace of arrivals.

A break in the state’s fence could be seen along with a field of discarded clothes and trash, signs of a large number of people crossing recently. “You can see clothing all along the water,” said Lt. Donny Kindred, a helicopter pilot with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Migrants spotted from a helicopter on Wednesday afternoon on the outskirts of Eagle Pass appeared to be seeking to turn themselves in to Border Patrol, the first step in applying for asylum. In one spot, a group of more than a dozen gathered by a National Guard vehicle. In another, three people walked along a ranch road, apparently looking for someone to surrender to, trailed by three head of livestock.

The helicopter circled over a spot where migrants seeking to evade the authorities appeared to have hidden among the low trees and mesquite, leaving a backpack and other belongings behind. It flew over a state highway that has been a common route for smugglers, and for state troopers pursuing them at high speeds.

“There were several pursuits this morning,” said Lieutenant Kindred. “It’s just been overwhelming.”

Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting from Washington and Steve Fisher from Matamoros, Mexico.

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