U.S. immigration policy Title 42 expired Thursday night, marking the end of restrictions implemented by the Trump administration amid the COVID-19 pandemic that allowed the government to prevent asylum seekers from entering the country.
In the hours leading up to Title 42’s termination, migrants continued to gather near ports of entry on the southern border with Mexico, hoping for a new opportunity to enter the U.S. as confusion over the imminent policy changes and their impact persisted.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas issued a warning Thursday that “starting tonight, people who arrive at the border without using a lawful pathway will be presumed ineligible for asylum.” He noted that 24,000 Border Patrol agents and officers had been deployed to work alongside “thousands of troops and contractors, and over a thousand asylum officers to help enforce our laws.”
“Do not believe the lies of smugglers,” Mayorkas said in a statement. “The border is not open. People who do not use available lawful pathways to enter the U.S. now face tougher consequences, including a minimum five-year ban on re-entry and potential criminal prosecution.”
Both the United States and Mexico have been showing increased enforcement presence.
The San Ysidro border crossing into Tijuana was shut down for six minutes Wednesday night so that dozens of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents could train in riot gear.
The agency did not detail the reasons for the security drill, the second in a week. As part of the exercise that spanned several lanes of the port of entry, agents threw what appeared to be tear gas canisters. A few steps away on the Mexican side, a group of National Guard elements held their own drill.
A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said this week that there are no plans to close ports of entry.
Mexico’s National Guard has been positioned along the southern layer of border barrier in recent weeks, and Thursday was no exception. Tijuana police also seemed to more closely monitor activity at ports of entry.
Attorneys with Al Otro Lado, a legal services nonprofit that supports asylum seekers, spread out across Tijuana to give presentations at several shelters about the forthcoming policy changes. At Templo Embajadores de Jesus, migrants listened intently as a group talked through the new rules and the requirements to qualify for asylum.
Meanwhile, north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Somerton, Ariz., buses pulled in and out of a parking lot throughout the day Thursday at the Regional Center for Border Health, transporting migrants who had just been released from U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody to the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport if they had flights, or to a motel for the night.
Chief Executive Officer Amanda Aguirre said some 800 migrants arriving on 15 buses were the most her staff had accommodated in the two years since starting a transitional center where migrants can receive medical aid and make travel arrangements out of the Yuma, Ariz. area.
Higher numbers were expected Friday. Aguirre said the local fire department had informed her that 140 migrants would be released to the streets unless officials came up with two more buses and additional shelter space.
Because there’s no large bus station in Yuma — just a stop with a bench — the organization acts as a travel center for migrants who might otherwise find themselves lost and confused.
People from Senegal, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Iran, Russia and Brazil were among those who waited in seats under tented white tarps for rapid COVID-19 tests and travel itineraries. Migrants pay their own way, though the Regional Center for Border Health helps supplement if needed.
Close to 5 p.m., migrants — many of them wearing sneakers with missing shoelaces after they’d been removed by border agents — lined up to board a bus to a motel for the night. Aguirre said most hotels in the area refused to rent rooms to migrants, so during peak farm season they compete for rooms with contractors who hire temporary foreign laborers.
I.B., a Peruvian man who asked to be identified by his initials out of concern for his immigration case, said he had flown to Mexicali, crossed the border and turned himself in to border agents. He was detained for six days before being released in Yuma.
He said he hadn’t known the details of the changes to Title 42 when he made the trip.
“We knew they were going to change the rules after the 11th, but we didn’t know it would be so strict,” he said. “I think I’ve had a bit of luck.”
I.B. said he was given a notice to appear in immigration court and is hopeful for asylum. He said he fled Lima, the Peruvian capital, after gangs from Venezuela began extorting from him, seeking more than $2,500 a month. He said he paid them for two months, but when he ran out of money, he knew that he would be killed if he stayed. So he sent his wife and three children to another state and decided to seek safety in Miami after being encouraged by friends who had recently arrived in the U.S.
Guri Singh, 21, said he fled India after experiencing religious discrimination as a Sikh. His parents, who are legal residents in England, couldn’t get him a visa. So he said he paid smugglers $50,000 to fly to El Salvador, then took buses to the U.S. border.
Singh said he’d never heard of Title 42 and knew nothing about the impending changes to border policy. He just knew he had a flight to the Bay Area and would be at his cousin’s home by 3 p.m. Friday.
As the sun began to set along the Rio Grande on Thursday, U.S. immigration officers launched yet another operation to catch migrants. It was a routine action in the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which has emerged as the nation’s busiest for detentions and expulsions of immigrants without legal status.
As many as 500 migrants, all seeking to surrender to U.S. authorities, had assembled on the U.S. side in front of the border fence, at a spot about 12 miles east of El Paso.
Officials arranged for a semitruck to provide toilets for the crowds. Agents separated single men and women from families traveling with children. Border Patrol officials allowed families to begin exiting though a border gate to waiting detention vans.
Texas National Guard forces patrolled the perimeter of the slice of terrain where migrants waited patiently. Latecomers crossing the Rio Grande were denied incorporation into the large group and told to walk another two miles downriver to another border gate where a growing group of migrants was waiting.
Among those arriving late was a family from Cali, Colombia — a couple and their 2-year-old boy. The father carried his son across the shallow Rio Grande, stepping on strategically placed stones to avoid getting his feet wet as his wife followed.
“It’s frustrating,” said the Colombian woman as this family, like so many others, contemplated the next step in their journey. “But one can’t abandon hope.”
Castillo, McDonnell and Aleaziz write for the Los Angeles Times. Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune. San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Alexandra Mendoza contributed to this report.