Pandemic-related asylum restrictions used millions of times to expel migrants were lifted early Friday, as people raced to enter the United States before new rules announced by President Joe Biden’s administration set in. Meanwhile, the administration was dealt with a potentially serious legal setback when a federal judge temporarily blocked its attempt to release migrants more quickly when Border Patrol holding stations are full.
Migrants, including children, in northern Mexico paced along a US border strung with razor wire and bolstered by troops, unsure of where to go or what to do next. Others settled into shelters, determined to secure an asylum appointment that can take months to schedule online.
At Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, migrant families hesitated only briefly as the deadline passed and asylum restrictions shifted before entering the waters of the Rio Grande from Mexico, holding cell phones above the water to light the way toward the US. US authorities shouted for the migrants to turn back. “Be careful with the children,” an official shouted through a megaphone. “It is especially dangerous for the children.”
The expired rules, known as Title 42, were in place since March 2020. They allow border officials to quickly return asylum seekers back over the border on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Strictly new measures
US authorities have been unveiling strict new measures, which crack down on illegal crossings while also setting up legal pathways for migrants who apply online, seek a sponsor and undergo background checks. If successful, the reforms could fundamentally alter how migrants arrive at the US-Mexico border.
Many migrants were acutely aware of looming policy changes designed to stop illegal crossings and encourage asylum seekers to apply online and consider alternative destinations, including Canada or Spain.
On the US side of the river, many surrendered immediately to authorities and hoped to be released while pursuing their cases in backlogged immigration courts, which takes years.
It was not clear how many migrants were on the move or how long the surge might last. By Thursday evening, the flow seemed to be slowing in some locations, but it was not clear why, or whether crossings would increase again after the coronavirus-related restrictions expire.
A US official reported the Border Patrol stopped some 10,000 migrants on Tuesday – nearly twice the level from March and only slightly below the 11,000 figure that authorities have said is the upper limit of what they expect after Title 42 ends. More than 27,000 people were in US Customs and Border Protection custody, the official said.
Cracking down on illegal crossings
The new policies crack down on illegal crossings while also setting up legals for migrants who apply online, seek a pathway sponsor and undergo background checks. If successful, the reforms could fundamentally alter how migrants arrive at the US-Mexico border.
But it will take time to see results. Biden has conceded the border will be chaotic for a while. Immigrant advocacy groups have threatened legal action. And migrants fleeing poverty, gangs and persecution in their homelands are still desperate to reach US soil at any cost.
While Title 42 prevented many from seeking asylum, it carried no legal consequences, encouraging repeat attempts. After Thursday, migrants face being barred from entering the US for five years and possible criminal prosecution.
Minutes before new asylum restrictions took effect, advocacy groups sued to block the new rule that bans asylum for anyone who travels through another country, like Mexico, to reach the US border, with few exceptions.
Uptick in smugglers
Even as migrants were racing to reach US soil before the rules expire, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said smugglers were sending a different message. He noted an uptick in smugglers at his country’s southern border offering to take migrants to the United States and telling them the border was open starting Thursday.
On Wednesday, Homeland Security announced a rule to make it extremely difficult for anyone who travels through another country, like Mexico, or who did not apply online, to qualify for asylum. It also introduced curfews with GPS tracking for families released in the US before initial asylum screenings.
The administration says it is beefing up the removal of migrants found unqualified to stay in the US on flights like those that brought nearly 400 migrants home to Guatemala from the US on Thursday.
At the same time, the administration has introduced expansive new legal pathways into the US. Up to 30,000 people a month from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela can enter if they apply online with a financial sponsor and enter through an airport. Processing centers are opening in Guatemala, Colombia and elsewhere. Up to 1,000 can enter daily though land crossings with Mexico if they snag an appointment on an online app.