Amid pressing concerns that a surge of migrant crossings would be triggered by the expiration of the US border restriction policy known as Title 42, some southern border communities have reported receiving fewer-than-expected migrant arrivals since the policy has been lifted.
“We continue to encounter high levels of non-citizens at the border but we did not see a substantial increase overnight or an influx (of migrants) at midnight” after the policy expired Thursday night, Blas Nuñez-Neto, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, said Friday morning.
Officials have warned that the lifting of Title 42 – a controversial Trump-era policy from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic which allowed authorities to swiftly turn away migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border – could invite a crush of migrants and aggravate the humanitarian crisis at the southern border. The policy’s expiration is due to the declared end of the national public health emergency around Covid-19.
Even before the lifting of Title 42, border community leaders have said they are overwhelmed by the flow of migrant arrivals and are struggling to meet their needs as social services are pushed to the brink.
In anticipation of the policy’s expiration, federal and local authorities have been bracing for the anticipated influx, including at least two South Texas counties that issued preemptive disaster declarations. The Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense have also sent thousands of personnel to the border to support local authorities, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday.
Officials warn of potential for dangerous overcrowding
Despite the relative calm on the border at the end of Title 42, US authorities are warning that migrant processing and detention facilities could become dangerously overcrowded in the aftermath of the pandemic-era immigration restriction.
The Biden administration was dealt a significant stumbling block when the state of Florida sued to halt a key part of its plan to manage the anticipated border crossings.
The plan, which was temporarily blocked by a federal judge in Florida on Thursday, would allow US Customs and Border Protection to release some apprehended migrants from its custody without court dates or, in some cases, release them with conditions.
In an emergency motion seeking a stay of the temporary restraining order, US immigration officials warned that without measures to conditionally release some migrants, there could be over 45,000 migrants in custody by the end of the month.
“Noncitizens held in overcrowded facilities are not only vulnerable to communicable diseases, but this vulnerability is likely to be compounded by some aspects of the noncitizens’ journey including poor health and nutrition, lack of access to health care, and/or inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene services while migrating to the Southwest border,” immigration officials said in the motion.
The US Border Patrol has encountered approximately 1.33 million migrants in fiscal year 2023 to date, according to the motion. The expiration of Title 42 is expected to lead to a further surge, with numbers projected to average 12,000 to 14,000 a day, a senior Customs and Border Protection official said in a declaration filed with the motion.
“Over the last week, the ten day average encounters is 9,087, with May 8, 9, 10 and all surpassing 10,000 apprehensions with a daily in custody average of 23,646,” said the official, Matthew J. Hudak, deputy chief of the US Border Patrol.
“On balance, daily encounters have been outpacing daily bookouts, that is a final release from a CBP holding facility, to include transfer to ICE custody, release, repatriation, or expulsion from the United States, by approximately 950 noncitizens over the last seven days,” Hudak said.
The motion said surging migration coupled with the termination of Title 42 “is overwhelming U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities, risking widespread health and safety risks to migrants, government employees, and the public.”
‘We still need to prepare for the unknown’
Among the US cities that saw fewer-than-anticipated migrants on Friday was McAllen, Texas, which sits across the border from the Mexican city of Reynosa.
“It’s not the numbers we initially expected, and we hope it keeps that way,” said McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos.
About 1,200 migrants are already staying in a shelter and processing facility set up by the city, the mayor said. Authorities hope to expand the site’s capacity to 5,000 people in the coming days, he said.
In El Paso, which has seen hundreds of migrants sleeping on sidewalks after a recent spike in arrivals, Mayor Oscar Leeser said Friday that the city did not see the expected surge of migrants after Title 42 lapsed.
At the city’s border gate around noon on Friday, the scene was mostly empty except for a few arriving migrants. Just the day before, about 1,000 migrants were waiting to be processed in the afternoon, including some who bore wounds and injuries from their treacherous crossing journeys.
Leeser said El Paso has so far seen a “smooth transition” out of Title 42 but is still preparing for what the future may hold.
“We know that we still need to prepare for the unknown because we don’t know what’s going to happen next week and continue to happen day in and day out,” Lesser said.
Mexico Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the number of migrants in the border city of Ciudad Juarez was about 10,000 people, with about 5,500 counted in Matamoros – the same as earlier in the week. About 500 migrants gathered in Tijuana.
Migrant flows dropped in recent days, he said, describing the border situation as “calm and normal.”
In the absence of Title 42, US authorities will now revert to Title 8, a decades-old protocol for asylum seekers which could carry lengthier processing times and more severe consequences for those crossing unlawfully.
‘Concern’ about Florida lawsuit’s impact
President Joe Biden has faced scrutiny from both sides of the aisle over his administration’s handling of the expiration of Title 42, and Biden has strained to prove he can control the crisis at the border and humanely deal with a possible influx of those seeking asylum.
Under the administration’s plan to manage the anticipated border crossings, migrants would be released “on parole” on a case-by-case basis and be required to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some may also be placed in detention program alternatives.
The Department of Homeland Security said the strategy would help relieve some of the strain on overcrowded border facilities.
District Judge T. Kent Wetherell in Florida, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, has blocked the administration’s plan to release some migrants for two weeks. The judge said the Biden administration simply failed to prepare for Title 42’s ending and that it was also not able to sufficiently justify why its policy was only unveiled on Wednesday, when the end of the policy has been anticipated for months.
The White House responded to the lawsuit on Friday, saying Florida Republicans intended to “sabotage” the administration’s border control efforts.
“That’s what we’ve been seeing from Republican officials over and over again for the past several months,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters during Friday’s press briefing. “Instead of trying to deal with an issue or talking to the federal government on how to deal with an issue, maybe, in their state or in their city, they don’t do that – they actually sabotage what we’re trying to do.”
Customs and Border Protection will comply with the judge’s order, the agency said early Friday, but called it a “harmful ruling that will result in unsafe overcrowding at CBP facilities and undercut our ability to efficiently process and remove migrants, and risks creating dangerous conditions for border patrol agents and migrants.”
Nuñez-Neto on Friday expressed “concern” about the Florida lawsuit’s impact on “our ability to process people quickly given the elevated encounter levels we are facing.”
Nuñez-Neto also warned of the potential for “unsafe overcrowding at CBP facilities” and risk of “dangerous conditions for Border Patrol agents as well as non-citizens in our custody.”
CNN’s Homero De la Fuente, Maegan Vazquez, Jennifer Hansler, DJ Judd, Andy Rose, Jason Hanna, Ray Sanchez, Rosa Flores, Priscilla Alvarez and Dan Berman contributed to this report.