U.S. border agents in El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday urged hundreds of migrants amassing on city streets to surrender to authorities as illegal crossings rose in the run-up to the end of COVID-19 border restrictions known as Title 42.
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At the same time, migrants were gathering on the Mexican side at different points along the U.S. southern border in anticipation of crossing when border policy changes later this week.
In Matamoros, Mexico, migrants purchased pool floats and life jackets to prepare to cross the Rio Grande River into Brownsville, Texas, said migrant rights activist Gladys Canas. And in Tijuana, across from San Diego, California, migrants formed long lines at the U.S. border on Monday to turn themselves in.
The scenes come as Title 42 is set to expire just before midnight on Thursday. The policy has been in place since March 2020, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has allowed U.S. authorities to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants to Mexico without the chance to seek U.S. asylum.
Still, not all migrants caught crossing the border illegally have been subjected to Title 42 expulsions, with more than half in recent months allowed into the U.S. to pursue their immigration cases. Mexico also accepts just certain nationalities and limits the migrants it takes based on capacity.
In recent weeks, illegal border crossings have climbed and more migrants are coming in the hopes they will now be allowed to apply for asylum in the United States, leaving U.S. border cities struggling to provide housing and transportation to the thousands arriving each day.
A top U.S. border official said last month that they were preparing for up to 10,000 migrants per day crossing illegally after Title 42 ends, nearly double the daily rate in March.
El Paso has been among the spots on the border where crossings have risen even as U.S. authorities have deployed more personnel to the area.
On Monday night, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a “targeted enforcement operation” in El Paso to arrest migrants and process them for possible deportation or release. The agency also said it would reduce the flow of legal travelers across the Paso Del Norte port of entry to focus on security.
’Maxed Out’ Shelters’
Men in civilian clothes handled out Spanish-language flyers in downtown El Paso on Tuesday morning calling on migrants to head to the nearest U.S. Border Patrol station for processing, migrants said.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) did not respond to requests for comment. But Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council representing U.S. border agents, confirmed that agents distributed the handouts.
Judd said border officials were working to process as many migrants as possible before Title 42 ends.
The flyer also said migrants must report to border authorities before accessing El Paso shelters, an assertion advocates said was not true.
“Everyone who needs to request shelter from the city and county of El Paso or religious organizations must have been processed by CBP officials,” the flyer said in Spanish.
Dylan Corbett, the executive director of the Hope Border Institute, said U.S. border authorities had informed immigration advocates and local officials on Monday that they would distribute information in plain clothes but that the enforcement push was generating anxiety.
Despite the message on the flyers – which did not identify the source – the vast majority of El Paso shelters do not require migrants to prove they have been processed by border authorities, said Camille Castillo, director of the El Paso Coalition for the Homeless.
Castillo said shelters are already “maxed out”.
Daniel Mena, a recently arrived Venezuelan migrant standing near the Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso, said on Tuesday morning that he did not plan to turn himself in because he was worried the U.S. might deport him.
But hours later, after seeing other migrants return with U.S. paperwork, he lined up at a border patrol station.
“I decided to go for it,” Mena said.