Cities along both sides of the US-Mexico border are steeled for a potentially weeks-long surge in migrant crossings, threatening to ignite a politically toxic issue for president Joe Biden.
A rule known as Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that allowed US border agents to quickly send migrants back to Mexico instead of processing their asylum cases, was set to expire just before midnight on Thursday. The looming deadline has set off a desperate rush to cross the border; even more people are expected to attempt the fraught journey after it has passed.
Biden has warned the border will probably be “chaotic for a while”, and the US has sent more than 1,500 active-duty military officers to help with the fallout, which could reverberate across the country.
People are on the move across the Americas in record numbers, as countries in the region and around the world experience political and economic crises. In the past six months alone, Mexico’s authorities have recorded migrants from more than 100 countries, some of whom are hoping to cross the border into the US.
At a gate in the border fence in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez on Tuesday, hundreds of men, women and children, many from Venezuela and Colombia, were lined up under the hot sun hoping agents would open the gate. The group had tried to organise itself, and migrants had numbers written in pen on their arms to denote their place in the queue. Trucks carrying US border patrol guards drove past intermittently but neither Mexican officials nor humanitarian groups were present.
Víctor Sánchez was among a group of Venezuelans huddled under a tree in a patch of shade on the Mexican side on Tuesday, hungry and tired after waiting seven days for a chance to get into the US.
“We have to wait and see what happens ... because there are a lot of rumours, saying we won’t get in or that they will take us,” the 29-year-old said, adding he had met migrants from all over the world on the trip including Afghanistan and China. “The dream is to cross over and work, because the situation in Venezuela is too ugly.”
Biden has struggled to contain the surge of migrants since entering office in early 2021, exposing him to regular criticism, mainly from Republicans, but also from Democrats in the most-affected cities and states.
“This catastrophic border crisis is a national security crisis, an economic crisis, and a humanitarian crisis,” Elise Stefanik, the chair of the House Republican conference, told reporters on Wednesday. “Every district is a border district.”
The backlash has forced Biden to boost US law enforcement efforts along the border with Mexico. Those who do not cross through a legal pathway will now be deemed ineligible for asylum with a few exceptions. Those removed will not be allowed to re-enter the US for five years and could face criminal prosecution.
To discourage travel, the US eventually aims to open 100 regional processing centres around Latin America and will soon launch an online platform for appointments.
“Our overall approach is to build lawful pathways for people to come to the United States, and to impose tougher consequences on those who choose not to use those pathways,” Alejandro Mayorkas, the US secretary of homeland security, said at a press briefing in Washington on Wednesday. He blamed Congress for failing to fix “a broken immigration system” and not giving the administration the resources it needs to respond.
In recent years, US policies have increasingly resulted in migrants waiting on Mexico’s side, where they face potential violence, extortion and robbery at the hands of authorities and cartels. Cities such as Juárez that were previously short stops have become big gathering points where migrants wait for months. Locals have grown increasingly frustrated.
This week migrants were still considering whether to cross before or after Thursday night. Recently full shelters in Juarez have partly emptied out, with migrants turning themselves in at the border in hopes of claiming asylum.
More than 8,700 migrants were detained each day between Saturday and Monday, according to Raul Ortiz, chief of the US Border Patrol. That number was far higher than the average of 7,500 a day in the last fiscal year, which was a record. More than 2.3 million people were caught crossing illegally in the fiscal year to September.
“Border policies look different in Washington than they look at the border,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “The messages that migrants themselves get about what’s happening is not always what policymakers intend.”
To prepare for more crossings, the normally four-lane central bridge from Juárez into El Paso, Texas, was slowed to one lane, with the other lanes covered by barbed wire.
In El Paso dozens of migrants were sleeping on the streets outside a church on Wednesday. One said he had been picked up four times by migration authorities; another said he had been hit on the head with a gun by cartel operatives he refused to pay.
Carlos, a 25-year-old Venezuelan who said he was fleeing extortion and threats, crossed illegally last week for fear of the rule changes but turned himself in to border patrol and got authorisation to stay while his case is processed.
No matter what the US does, people will keep leaving and trying to get there because it is so bad at home, he said: “If they send the military to one place, they’ll enter through another.”
Mexico has become an important ally in the US government’s drive to stop migrants arriving, and it has agreed to take back migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti who cross illegally.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has deployed his country’s military and National Guard to stop migrants. Biden on Wednesday said his Mexican counterpart had been “very co-operative”.
In advance of Title 42′s expiration, the Biden administration on Wednesday published a new rule to force asylum seekers to request protection in safe third countries they pass through. Migrant rights groups have denounced it as a “transit ban”.
Giovanni Lepri, the UN Refugee Agency’s representative in Mexico, said it was problematic under international law. He said the other aspects of the new rules were aimed at favouring legal entry.
“This is a very difficult situation for states, for people, for institutions, for the civil society, because the numbers are high,” he said. “We need to keep always in mind that we are talking about people, human beings, and that the solutions that are being looked at ... put the protection and the alternatives at the centre.”
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023