JUÁREZ, Mexico – With the future of Title 42 migrant expulsions in limbo, migrants watched and waited in this Mexican border city for any sign their luck could change.
Kelson Joseph has spent the past year in Juárez waiting for a shift in U.S. immigration policy.
He stood on the south bank of the Rio Grande on Monday and looked north. The 26-year-old Haitian had crossed the better part of the Western Hemisphere to arrive here, working in Brazil for a time and then at a Juárez assembly plant. His Mexican work permit had run out; he longed to reunite with friends and family in California.
What would the end of Title 42 mean for him? The Biden administration intended to lift the order Wednesday, but its fate may rest with the Supreme Court.
“I have been scared to cross,” Joseph said in Spanish, “because there have been so many deportations. But people are saying it will be easier (after Title 42 ends). I’m just waiting to see. When I hear that it is a good time to cross, I’m going to try.”
Supreme Court intervenes at 11th hour
Title 42 took effect at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
Under the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control invoked the health code to prevent migrants from being held in crowded holding facilities during a global pandemic. Immigrant advocates say the policy was used for border control long after the COVID-19 threat had retreated.
“There’s no real public health excuse, but they’re using a public health law and an archaic one,” said Vicki Gaubeca, associate director for U.S. immigration and border policy with Human Rights Watch. “It became like the silver bullet.”
Two competing lawsuits have pinballed the policy’s fate in the courts.
The ACLU sued the administration last year to end the policy, and the CDC officially terminated the order in April. But it never went away.
Another complaint by Republican-led states, including Texas, argued that ending Title 42 could provoke unusually high levels of migration and drain state resources. They appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, and the court paused the winding down of the program while it evaluates written arguments.
El Paso preparing for ‘whatever happens’
In a joint news conference Monday, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego and Mayor Oscar Leeser said the county and city would continue to provide humanitarian and logistical support to help migrants released by Border Patrol get shelter and on their way.
“The name of the game right now is minimizing,” Samaniego said of the effects as migrants await the end of Title 42. “I want the community to feel that whatever happens, we have a lot of things going on, a lot of reinforcements. We can’t have the shadow over us, waiting for it to happen.”
Leeser declared a state of emergency over the weekend as Border Patrol encounters in the El Paso region reached 2,500 per day in December.
Border Patrol released more than 10,000 migrants last week to the city, county, nonprofit shelters and downtown streets, according to the city’s online “migrant situational awareness dashboard.”
On Monday, Leeser said the city is searching its inventory of properties to increase shelter capacity by 1,100 people, including potentially using public school buildings that no longer serve students. The county has been providing logistical support to those migrants with sponsors and a destination, and is busing others to Houston to connect to flights and other transit options.
“We’re preparing like Title 42 will no longer be in existence,” he said.
White House chipping in funds, personnel
Since the start of the Title 42 policy, Border Patrol has expelled migrants more than 2.4 million times, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Half of 4.8 million migrant encounters at the Southwest border have resulted in expulsion over the period.
In a White House press briefing Monday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said DHS has deployed “additional agents and processing capabilities” to El Paso in response to the migrant surge, and a total of 23,000 agents are working to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Biden administration has also requested an additional $3.5 billion from Congress to support its efforts at the border, she said. The money is tied up in a year-end spending fight in Washington that lawmakers are working to resolve by Friday.
Jean-Pierre said the money would help the federal government scale up air and ground transportation to move migrants from processing centers to less crowded areas and quickly remove migrants who do not have a legal basis to remain in the country. It would also fund an additional 300 border agents and increase support for border cities, she said.
Samaniego said the federal government is funding city and county operations to aid migrants.
“We have to act as if Title 42 has been lifted,” Samaniego said.
Texas National Guard troops land in El Paso
The city and county are also expecting Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration to provide additional buses to boost transportation capacity out of El Paso during the busy holiday season. Since Friday, state-sponsored buses have transported migrants from El Paso to New York City.
El Paso has approached a sharp increase in migration as a humanitarian crisis, while the governor has called it a failure of border security, placing the blame on the Biden administration.
“We’re not going to wait” on the federal government to act, Abbott says in a video posted to Twitter with a background of military personnel and helicopters.
The governor has continued to solicit private donations to extend border fencing in Texas.
The Texas Military Department said in a Twitter post that 400 National Guard troops landed in El Paso on Monday “to assist in the anticipated mass migration pending the expiration of Title 42” and deter unlawful crossings from Mexico.
City and county officials said they are coordinating with the state on how to deploy Guard soldiers in El Paso. As of Monday night, they hadn’t been activated.
Migrants in Mexico react to mixed messages
Some migrants in Juárez said they heard that the border would “close” on Dec. 21; others that it would “open.” People staying in shelters over the weekend shared stories of friends who had been expelled to Mexico and others who had been granted a chance to stay in the U.S.
Venezuelans, some of whom had been expelled to Mexico multiple times, watched El Paso from the south side of the river on Monday at midday. They said they were waiting for word on whether Title 42 would end or not.
The long line of migrants waiting on the north bank of the Rio Grande had dwindled then disappeared over the weekend.
But late Monday, after news broke about the Supreme Court’s decision to temporarily halt the Title 42 expiration, a group of about 200 migrants began gathering again on the north side of the river to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents. Some would likely be processed by Border Patrol and released in El Paso to pursue a claim to stay in the country, such as political asylum. Others could be expelled to Mexican border cities or their countries of origin.
As night fell, they built fires to stay warm. Temperatures were forecast to drop below freezing overnight.
The river was clogged at its edges with the litter and discarded belongings of the thousands who crossed before them.
Contributing: Francesca Chambers from Washington.