Migrants face new border reality as Title 42 pandemic restrictions expire

It allowed border officials to quickly return asylum seekers back over the border on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Published: May. 12, 2023 at 8:38 AM MDT
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(AP) - The U.S. entered a new immigration enforcement era Friday, ending a three-year-old asylum restriction and enacting a set of strict new rules that the Biden administration hopes will stabilize the U.S.-Mexico border and push migrants to apply for protections where they are, skipping the dangerous journey north.

The transition has been far from simple. Even as the old policy known as Title 42 expired, migrants along the border were still wading into the Rio Grande to take their chances getting into the country, defying officials shouting for them to turn back. Others hunched over cellphones trying to access an appointment app, a centerpiece of the new measures, while others with appointments walked across a bridge hoping for a new life. And lawsuits sought to stop some of the measures.

The Biden administration has said the new policies are meant both to crack down on illegal crossings and to offer a new legal pathway for migrants who spend thousands on smuggling operations to get them to the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrants are now essentially barred from seeking asylum in the U.S. if they first didn’t seek protection in the countries they traveled through or applied on line. Families allowed in as their immigration cases progress will face curfews and GPS monitoring. Meanwhile, new migration hubs will be stationed in Colombia and Guatemala, with plans to open 100 more in the Western Hemisphere.

If it works, it could fundamentally alter how migrants come to the southern border. But President Joe Biden, who is running for reelection, is facing withering criticism from migrant advocates who say he’s abandoning more humanitarian methods and Republicans who claim he’s soft on border security.

On Friday morning, small groups of Haitian migrants with appointments to request asylum crossed the Gateway International Bridge connecting Matamoros, Mexico with Brownsville, Texas. They crossed with the assistance of a nongovernmental organization, passing the usual commuter traffic of students and workers lined up on the pedestrian path of the bridge. Car traffic appeared normal.

That is the scenario U.S. officials are hoping for. But many migrants and the advocates who help them say those who have fled their home countries for a myriad of reasons are at such a risk they cannot wait.

Migrant families — with some parents holding children — hesitated only briefly as the deadline passed before entering the waters of the Rio Grande near Brownsville, clutching cellphones above the water to light the way as U.S. officials shouted to turn back.

“Be careful with the children,” an official shouted through a megaphone. “It is especially dangerous for the children.”

Separately, at an outdoor encampment of migrants beside a border bridge in Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, Texas, cellphones were alight as migrants attempted to book an asylum appointment online through an app administered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“There’s no other way to get in,” said Venezuelan Carolina Ortiz, accompanied by her husband and children, ages 1 and 4. Others in the camp had the same plan: keep trying the app.

The expired rule, known as Title 42, has been in place since March 2020. It allowed border officials to quickly return asylum seekers back over the border on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. has declared the national emergency over, and with it, the restrictions end.

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 U.S. for five years and possible criminal prosecution.