The expiring rules allowed border guards to quickly return asylum seekers across the border on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
EL PASO, Texas – Pandemic restrictions on asylum that have deported millions of migrants were lifted early Friday as people sought to enter the United States before new rules announced by President Joe Biden’s administration took effect.
Meanwhile, the administration faced a potentially major legal setback when a federal judge temporarily blocked its effort to release migrants more quickly when border detention facilities are full.
Migrants, including children, in northern Mexico walked along the barbed-wire border with the US, not knowing where to go or what to do next. Others have settled into shelters, determined to get an asylum appointment that can take months to schedule online.
The expiring rules, known as Section 42, come into effect from March 2020. They allow border guards to quickly return asylum seekers across the border on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
US authorities have unveiled tough new measures to crack down on illegal crossings and create legal pathways for migrants to apply online, find sponsors and undergo background checks. If successful, the reforms could significantly change the way migrants arrive at the US-Mexico border.
Many migrants were well aware of upcoming policy changes aimed at curbing illegal crossings and encouraging asylum seekers to apply online and consider alternative destinations, including Canada or Spain.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” said Joan Daniel Barrios, a former military police officer from Venezuela, as he and two friends walked along the border in Ciudad Juarez, outside El Paso, Texas, looking for a chance to seek asylum in the United States.
“We have no money left, we have no food, we have nowhere to stay, the cartel is chasing us,” said Barrios, whose wife was in US custody. “What are we going to do, wait for them to kill us?”
Last week, Barrios and his friends entered the United States and were deported. They weren’t hoping for a different result on Thursday.
On the American side of the river, many immediately surrendered to authorities and hoped to be released while their cases were processed in immigration courts, which have a years-long backlog.
It is not yet clear how many migrants were on the move and how long the surge may last. By Thursday evening, the flow appeared to have slowed in some places, but it was unclear why or whether crossings would increase again after the end of the coronavirus restrictions.
A U.S. official said the Border Patrol stopped about 10,000 migrants on Tuesday — nearly double the number in March and just below the 11,000 figure that authorities said was the upper limit of what they expected after the end of section 42.
More than 27,000 people were in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody, the official said.
“Our buses are full. Our planes are full,” said Pedro Cardenas, a city commissioner in Brownsville, Texas, north of Matamoras, as the recent arrivals headed to destinations across the U.S.
The new policy prevents illegal crossings and creates legal pathways for migrants to apply online, find sponsors and undergo background checks. If successful, the reforms could significantly change the way migrants arrive at the US-Mexico border.
But it will take time to see results. Biden gave way to the border it will be chaotic for a while. Immigrant advocacy groups are threatening legal action. And migrants fleeing poverty, gangs and persecution at home are still desperate to reach US soil at any cost.
For now Title 42 prevented many from seeking asylum, it did not attract any legal consequences, encouraging repeated attempts. After Thursday, the migrants face a five-year ban from entering the US and possible criminal prosecution.
Detention facilities along the border were already far from being up to snuff. But on Thursday night, U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell, appointed by President Donald Trump, halted the administration’s plan to begin releasing migrants with notices to report to immigration offices in 60 days if detention centers reach 125% capacity, or where people are held an average of 60 hours. Fast-track releases were also set to begin when authorities stop 7,000 migrants along the border a day.
The state of Florida argued that the administration’s plan was nearly identical to another Biden policy previously struck down in federal court. Earlier Thursday, the Justice Department said its new move was in response to an emergency, and failure to implement it “could overburden the border and increase serious risks to the health and safety of noncitizens and immigration officials.”
Weatherell blocked the releases for two weeks and scheduled a May 19 hearing on whether to continue his order.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has already warned of more people on border patrols.
“I can’t overstate the strain on our staff and our facilities,” he told reporters Thursday.
Although the migrants have sought to reach US soil before the rules expire, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Abrador said smugglers are sending a different message. He pointed to an increase in the number of smugglers on his country’s southern border who are offering to take migrants to the US and telling them the border is open from Thursday.
on wednesday National Security announced a rule that makes it extremely difficult for those traveling through another country, such as Mexico, or who have not applied online, to qualify for asylum. He also imposed a GPS-tracked curfew on families released to the U.S. before an initial asylum review.
The administration says it is stepping up the removal of migrants ineligible to remain in the U.S. on flights like those that brought nearly 400 migrants home to Guatemala from the U.S. on Thursday.
Among them was Shady Mazariegos, 26, who arrived with her 4-year-old son just eight days after being detained near Brownsville.
“I heard on the news that there was an opportunity to enter, I heard on the radio, but it was all a lie,” she said. The smugglers took her to Matamoras and put them on a raft. They were quickly detained by border guards.
Mazariegos said she went on the hike because she was poor and hoped to reunite with her sisters who live in the U.S.
At the same time, the administration introduced extensive new legal avenues in the US
Up to 30 thousand people per month from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela can enter if they apply online through a financial sponsor and enter through the airport. Processing centers are opening in Guatemala, Colombia and elsewhere. Up to 1,000 people can enter daily through land crossings with Mexico if they make an appointment in the online application.
In asylums in northern Mexico, many migrants chose not to rush to the border and waited for existing asylum appointments or hoped to book an appointment online.
At the Ágape Misión Mundial shelter in Tijuana, hundreds of migrants waited for time. Daisy Busia, 37, and her 15-year-old daughter arrived at the shelter more than three months ago from the Mexican state of Michoacan, fleeing death threats, and have an appointment Saturday in California.
Busia had read on social media that pandemic-era restrictions were ending at the US-Mexico border, but preferred to cross with confidence later.
“People want to confuse you more than anything,” Busia said.