‘Now or never’: Migrants seek to beat the end of pandemic-related asylum restrictions

MATAMOROS, Mexico — Migrants rushed across the border hours before pandemic-related asylum restrictions were set to expire Thursday, fearing the new policies would make it much harder to enter the United States.

In a move to clear overwhelmed holding facilities, Border Patrol agents were told Wednesday to begin releasing some immigrants with instructions to report to an immigration office in the United States within 60 days, according to an American official. The official was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and provided information to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The Biden administration has been unveiling measures to replace Title 42, which suspended rights to seek asylum since March 2020 in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced a rule to make it extremely difficult for anyone traveling through another country, such as Mexico, to qualify for asylum. It also introduced GPS-tracked curfews for families released into the US prior to initial asylum evaluations.

In Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, migrants came steadily Wednesday, stripping down before descending a steep embankment clutching plastic bags filled with clothing. They walked slowly into the river, a man holding a baby in an open suitcase over his head.

On the American side, they changed into dry clothes and forced their way through barbed wire. Many turned themselves in to authorities, hoping to be released to stay legally while they file their cases in backlogged immigration courts, which takes years.

William Contreras of Venezuela said Title 42 was favorable to the people of his devastated South American country, having heard that many before him were released in the United States.

“What we understand is that they won’t let anyone else in,” said Contreras’s friend Pablo, who declined to give his last name because he planned to cross the border illegally. “That is the reason for our urgency to cross the border today.”

Border Patrol apprehended some 10,000 migrants on Tuesday, one of the busiest days in its history, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. That’s nearly double the daily average of about 5,200 in March, the latest publicly available data, and close to the 11,000 that US officials have forecast as the upper limit of an increase they anticipate after Title 42.

More than 27,000 people were in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection, the official said, well beyond capacity. In March, 8,600 were in custody.

Border Patrol agents on Wednesday were ordered to begin releasing migrants in any border sector that reached 125% holding capacity with instructions to report to an immigration office within 60 days. They were also told to begin releases if the average time in custody exceeded 60 hours or if 7,000 migrants were apprehended across the border in one day.

In Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, Texas, some migrant shelters had empty beds because migrants abandoned them to cross into the US. Enrique Valenzuela, who coordinates migrant relief efforts in the state of Chihuahua, said that the population of the city’s migrant shelters was half the nearly 3,000 staying there. A few weeks ago.

While Title 42 prevented many from seeking asylum, it had no legal consequences and encouraged repeat attempts. After Thursday, the migrants face a five-year ban from entering the US and possible criminal prosecution.

At the same time, the administration has introduced expansive new legal pathways in 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 via land crossings with Mexico if they get an appointment on an online application.

In San Diego, more than 100 migrants, many of them Colombian families, slept under plastic sheeting between two border walls, guarded by Border Patrol agents who had nowhere to take them for processing.

Albino León, 51, bought chicken from Tijuana vendors through slats on the wall that borders San Diego because the cookies agents gave him, his wife and daughter left them hungry. The news that Title 42 was ending prompted the family to take the trip now.

“With the changes they are making to the laws, it is now or never,” said León, who flew to Mexico from Colombia and passed a first border wall to reach US soil.

While US officials forecast more crossings after Title 42 ends at 11:59. pm EDT Thursday: President Joe Biden said Tuesday the border will be “chaotic for a while,” some weren’t sure. Soraya Vásquez, deputy director of Al Otro Lado, an advocacy group active in Tijuana, said crossings could decrease immediately, but migration would persist.

Miguel Meza, director of migrant programs for Catholic Relief Services, which runs 26 migrant shelters in Mexico, estimates that there are some 55,000 migrants in border cities facing the United States. More arrive daily from the south, as well as migrants expelled by the United States back to Mexico.

Carmen Josefina Characo, a Venezuelan woman who arrived in Matamoros with her adult daughter, said she was determined to keep trying a US government mobile app to win a place to enter the US at a crossing. land. Demand has far exceeded supply, exasperating many newcomers.

“People who have just arrived start to hear the stories of others who have been here longer and start to get alarmed. Oh, you’ve been here four months. Well, I just arrived and I’m going to cross,’” Characo said.

Migrants have affected some US cities in the past year.

Denver began seeing more than 100 migrants a day arrive on buses last week, triggering an emergency operations center. The city is fighting for a shelter space.

“The numbers are staggering,” said Alan Salazar, Mayor Michael Hancock’s chief of staff.

Salazar estimated that about 9,000 immigrants have passed through Denver since late fall, when the city suddenly became a popular stopover for Venezuelans and others.

Elías Guerra, 20, came to Denver last week after hearing that it was a welcoming place where he could get a free bus ticket to his final destination. After four nights in a church shelter, Denver provided a $58 bus ticket to New York City. He left Wednesday night.

“Here it is comfortable, safe, there is food, there is shelter, there are bathrooms,” Guerra said as he waited with dozens of other migrants in a parking lot where the city processed new arrivals.


Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Rebecca Santana in Washington; Christopher Sherman in Mexico City; Gerardo Carrillo in Matamoros, Mexico; María Verza in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; Anita Snow in Phoenix; Nick Riccardi in Denver; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Elliot Spagat in Tijuana, Mexico contributed.

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