Dozens of Venezuelan men waited under a row of white tents on the US-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas. Some sat on curbs and others leaned against metal barricades. When the gates finally opened, the long line of men slowly made their way up the pedestrian walkway to the bridge and across the Rio Grande River into Mexico.
For the past few weeks, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have been facilitating these deportations three times a day, as about 30,000 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, have entered the U.S. in the region since mid-April. That is compared to 1,700 migrants encountered by border guards in the first two weeks of April.
Across the state, in El Paso, officials are dealing with another wave of migrants and fear thousands more are waiting to cross the border.
All of this comes as the US prepares for the end of a coronavirus pandemic-related policy that allowed it to swiftly expel many migrants and raises concerns about whether the end of immigration restrictions under Title 42 of a law on the public health by 1944 will mean even more migrants attempting to cross the southern border.
“We have been preparing for quite some time and we are ready. What we expect is indeed an increase. And what we’re doing is planning for different levels of increase,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last week during a visit to South Texas. But he also emphasized that the situation at the border was “extremely challenging”.
He spoke of a place in Brownsville where US officials had set up a tent and facilities like portable toilets for migrants. He said it was difficult to identify the cause of Venezuela’s recent surge, but said the US was working with Mexico to address the issue and forecast changes “very soon”.
Many of those crossing the border come via Brownsville just north of the Mexican border town of Matamoros. The city was rocked by another Sunday of crisis when an SUV drove into people waiting at a bus stop opposite the city’s migrant shelter. Eight people, mostly Venezuelan men, died.
Ricardo Marquez, a 30-year-old Venezuelan, arrived at a McAllen animal shelter after crossing the border with his wife and 5-month-old child in Brownsville. They left Venezuela because his daughter needs surgery.
“I was faced with a choice of either staying there or risking everything for my daughter,” he said. They had crossed the Rio Grande after spending a month in Matamoros to get an appointment through an app the US uses to schedule undocumented migrants to get to the border and apply for entry.
Officials in President Joe Biden’s administration say they have been preparing for the end of Title 42 for well over a year. The strategy relies on giving migrants more legal ways to get to the US without risking the dangerous journey to the border. These include things like establishing centers abroad where migrants can apply to emigrate, as well as an already existing humanitarian parole process of 30,000 slots per month for people from four countries coming to the US. Beginning May 12, they are expanding the dates available through the CBP One app, which Marquez attempted to use. When it was launched, many migrants and advocates criticized the app for technical problems and too few appointments.
The strategy is also momentous. The US is proposing a rule that would severely limit asylum rights to migrants who first transit through another country, quick border screening of migrants seeking asylum and deportation of those deemed unqualified, and a five-year re-entry ban on those deportees.
Many of these consequences have been harshly criticized by immigrant rights groups, who have gone so far as to compare the policies to those of then-President Donald Trump and say the right to seek asylum on US soil is sacrosanct. Much of the Biden administration’s strategy also faces legal risks in the coming weeks. The proposed rule limiting asylum will almost certainly be the subject of lawsuits. And Republican-leaning states want to stop the Democratic government’s use of humanitarian parole on such a large scale.
The government has also increased immigration and customs enforcement flights to remove people from the country — flights like one that recently took off from an airport in Harlingen, Texas. Shortly after sunrise, three buses pulled up next to an airplane. One by one, migrants got off the bus. They wore handcuffs and shackles and surgical masks. First they were frisked for contraband and then slowly walked up the stairs to the plane. A total of 133 migrants were sent back to their home country of Guatemala.
But these flights only work if countries accept them. Venezuela not. And Colombia says it is suspending deportation flights over “cruel and degrading” treatment of migrants.
Administration officials say they are using technology to speed up the processing of migrants crossing the border without papers and using mobile processing so they can process migrants while they’re being transported in buses or vans, for example. They have pushed to digitize documents that were once hand-filled by the Border Patrol. And they’ve increased hiring of contractors so agents can stay on the job.
But critics have slammed the government, saying it is not doing enough. Kristen Sinema, an independent US Senator from Arizona, said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday that the administration has not consulted with local officials about things like expected flooding or the availability of buses to transport migrants speak. And she said a decision to send 1,500 military troops to the border came too late.
In communities bordering Mexico, officials and community groups who care for newly arrived migrants are concerned about what the end of Title 42 means. Sister Norma Pimentel runs the Catholic charity’s Humanitarian Respite Center, the largest emergency shelter in South Texas.
The shelter functions mainly as a resource center where migrants can buy tickets, make phone calls, eat and rest before traveling to their next destination, where they often have family or other contacts. But, according to Pimentel, many of the Venezuelans in this latest wave have no ties to the US, making it difficult for them to move to the next destination. “It’s going to be a problem for us,” she said.
The federal government is giving money to municipalities to help them deal with the surge in migrants. On Friday, the government announced that $332 million had been disbursed to 35 local governments and service organizations. Most go to communities near the border “due to the urgency they face,” but cities far from the border also receive funding.
In the Texas border town of El Paso, about 2,200 migrants are currently camped or living on the streets just blocks from the main ports of entry that connect El Paso to the Mexican city of Juárez. The city is poised to open emergency shelters next week in two vacant school buildings and a civic center if needed.
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser estimates about 10,000 to 12,000 migrants in Juárez are waiting to cross the border as local officials prepare for the “unknown.” Leeser said migrants are pouring into the border under false assumptions that it will be easier to enter the US if Title 42 goes away, but there could be harsher consequences for many.
It’s a message that federal officials have repeated. But they compete with a powerful human smuggling network that facilitates migration north and the despair of migrants who feel they have no other choice.
At the Brownsville port of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say they have been conducting drills to prepare in case a wave of migrants attempt to cross the border and they have to close the bridge. Pedestrians cross Matamoros via a covered walkway suitable for only a few people. Concerned about the impact of long lines of migrants arriving at the port without an appointment after May 11, disrupting port operations, they are urging people to make appointments via CBP One.
Gonzalez reported from McAllen, Texas. Associated Press writer Morgan Lee of Santa Fe, NM contributed to this report.