REYNOSA, Mexico – Pastor Hector Silva is eagerly waiting to assist the U.S. government when it begins processing this summer’s expected spikes of migrants seeking asylum in their bid for peace and jobs away from the upheaval and violence of their homelands.
Talks have just begun this week among shelters and medical teams and other nonprofits says the Mexican preacher who runs Reynosa’s largest migrant shelter.
Reynosa is one of the largest major stopping points for migrants trying to cross into the U.S., and thousands of people have been stuck in camps and shelters here waiting for a chance to try. On May 23, the measure known as Title 42, which has been used more than 1.8 million times to quickly turn away migrants due to the coronavirus pandemic, is set to end.
Immigration advocates and immigration detractors, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, predict migration will swell. The Biden administration is preparing for as many as 12,000 to 18,000 arrivals daily.
Will U.S. officials, nonprofits and others who assist migrants really be ready?
“Clearly it will be a huge and difficult job with all the families waiting in Reynosa,” said Silva, who has worked with migrants for more than 20 years in Reynosa, across from McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley.
“We want to work with the authorities so that there is order and so everything is calm at the bridge,” he added. Silva was once himself an undocumented immigrant in North Texas. “We want a change and people to be offered the help they deserve.”
Others along the border raise similar concerns.
“There is not a welcoming infrastructure at the border to process, in a legal and dignified way, the incoming flows of asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors and refugees,” said Fernando García of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. The asylum system must be repaired, García said.
They’re worried about a repeat of past problems.
In Del Rio, a city of 36,000, Tiffany Burrow, who runs a day shelter for migrants, said she is stocking up on pallets of water and hygiene kits.
Last September, the Del Rio region strained under as many as 16,000 migrants who crossed the Rio Grande in just a few weeks. Federal authorities kept many migrants behind a fence under a bridge. Border Patrol agents were caught on video charging into some of them on horseback. The city’s services were sorely strained as the migrants were processed and freed to move to the interior to await dates in immigration court.
A Facebook post from late March on her group Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition reads: “The September 2021 event of 16,000 migrants under the Del Rio POE [port of entry] bridge was a dress rehearsal for what’s already taking place.”
The Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to specific questions about preparations for the end of Title 42. But DHS chief Alejandro Mayorkas said three weeks ago that planning has begun.
“We have put in place a comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy to manage any potential increase in the number of migrants encountered at our border,” Mayorkas said in a statement. “We are increasing our capacity to process new arrivals, evaluate asylum requests, and quickly remove those who do not qualify for protection.”
Mayorkas said plans have been made to “surge personnel and resources” to the southwest border. Yet he also uses “broken” to describe the current immigration system.
A Title 42 spike
Reports of increasing migration can be seen across much of the nearly 2,000-mile border. In March, the Border Patrol encountered nearly 210,000 migrants, according to federal immigration authorities. The last time the Border Patrol saw a monthly high was in 2000.
U.S. immigration officials have applied the Title 42 measure aggressively since March 2020 when it was implemented during the administration of former President Donald Trump. But the logic for its use has shriveled.
COVID cases have fallen, and U.S. citizens and many foreigners, such as those with green cards, already freely cross the international border.
About half of all migrants encountered in March were expelled under Title 42.
Immigration advocates emphasize migrants have a legal right to request asylum and say Title 42 deprives them of rights to due process. Detractors like Abbott, who is up for reelection, frame the mass migrations as President Joe Biden’s failure to secure the border.
When migrants’ plans to cross and live into the U.S. are dashed by Title 42, they often remain in Mexican border cities because they can’t afford to return to their native lands or fear violence and upheaval. Migrants try again and again to cross.
In March, 28 percent of migrants who were expelled under Title 42 were found to have already tried to enter the U.S. before, according to U.S. immigration authorities.
Driving repeat tries is the fact that a Title 42 public health expulsion doesn’t carry a legal penalty, or a formal deportation record, as it does under U.S. immigration law.
Many migrants end up lingering in cities like Reynosa, a sprawling city of more than 900,000 with three international bridges. Passage through Reynosa and its nearby towns leads into Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest migration region and the quickest route north from Central America.
But Reynosa also sits at the edge of the most violent Mexican border state, Tamaulipas, according to the U.S. State Department. It has the harshest U.S. “no-travel” advisory — a level 4 warning like the ones in war-torn Syria and Somalia. “Heavily armed members of criminal groups often patrol areas” of the state, especially along the border between Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, reads the State Department warning.
It’s no wonder migrants plan to try again to head north, and they are eager for the fall of Title 42.
Leticia Hernandez, a 53-year-old Honduran, is one of them, waiting for her chance to make an asylum plea. She lives in a crowded tent camp in a city park in Reynosa with other family members. She can’t go back home, Hernandez said. Gangs of men barge into houses and assault average Hondurans, she said. And, “If you made a complaint… police will come after you for doing it,” she said.
Her message to Biden is simple: “Help us. We like to work. We are hard workers.”
The plan so far
The Department of Homeland Security has said it has plans for three different scenarios of mass arrivals: 6,000 migrants per day, 12,000 per day, and up to 18,000 migrants per day.
Federal authorities have said the additional staff they will send to the border includes asylum officers and teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Getting asylum officers to the border is part of an overhaul of the asylum process aimed at more quickly deciding claims and allowing asylum-seekers at the border to avoid the clogged immigration courts.
Usually, when an asylum-seeker enters at the border, they are placed into the immigration court system. It now takes an average of nearly five years to process those pleas in the courts, and there are nearly 700,000 asylum cases in the backlog, according to the Syracuse University nonprofit TRAC. The new asylum officers are considered critical to processing migrants more quickly, sending them on to the interior or back out of the country.
But it’s unclear if the asylum officers will be in place by May 23.
DHS also has prepared more temporary holding facilities for migrants.
Ursula, the largest Border Patrol holding center in south McAllen, was recently renovated. The processing center, marked by a black, green and yellow Border Patrol flag flapping high above the facility, can now hold up to 1,200 people.
In nearby Donna, a soft-sided tent city is ready for federal use again. It can hold up to 1,500 migrants.
Part of the DHS plan also includes a warning: One aimed to establish that not all seeking entry will qualify as asylum-seekers.
“Those who attempt to enter the United States without authorization, and without a valid asylum claim, are subject to additional long-term consequences beyond removal… including bars to future immigration benefits,” reads a DHS fact sheet on Title 42.
Growing unease over whether federal authorities are ready for what lies ahead is spurring on a backlash against the lifting of Title 42.
In Congress, Republican Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are among those who oppose the lifting of Title 42. Cornyn has supported a legislative proposal that would delay the end of Title 42 by at least 60 days. Among those leading the effort are Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz..
“If Title 42 is eliminated, the Border Patrol tell me they will lose control, and the drug cartels stand to benefit the most,” Cornyn said in support of the measure.
Abbott has made the end of Title 42 a principal whipping boy in his re-election campaign, and has promised to continue his Operation Lone Star to stop the flow of migrants across the border. Billions of state dollars have been poured into border security. As part of that effort, Texas has over the last year sent state troopers and 10,000 members of the Texas National Guard to the border.
One day this week in Anzalduas park, nestled in a curve of the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas troopers could be seen at picnic tables milling around in the shade on a recent afternoon. A week earlier, the Texas National Guard conducted military exercises with riot gear, waiving batons and using shields.
But how effective they can be is in question. Border enforcement is largely a federal responsibility, and state authorities are arresting migrants on minor state charges, such as trespassing.
Even some Democrats have urged the Biden administration to reconsider the May 23 end date. Among them are Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Peters and chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He said this week he wants details on a “well-thought-out plan.” Otherwise, he said, the end of Title 42 should be delayed.
Others continue to outright oppose Title 42 and want it lifted now, such as Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso. “The use of Title 42, introduced by the Trump administration, effectively eliminated access to legal asylum in our country,” Escobar has said.
Cornyn’s measure isn’t the only action up in the air. Still to be decided is the outcome of a federal lawsuit, filed by 21 GOP-led states earlier this month, that challenges the termination of Title 42. The states say the Centers for Disease Control violated the public-comment requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act when it moved to kill the health measure.
A hearing will be held on May 13 in the Louisiana court of U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays, a Trump appointee.
And on Friday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed his own lawsuit attempting to keep Title 42 in place.
Meanwhile, border leaders, including Republicans and Democrats, fear that Border Patrol facilities will soon be overwhelmed again.
McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos, a Republican, presides over a city where hundreds of migrant families have been released weekly to a Catholic Charities shelter and hundreds more were held under the shade of the Anzalduas international bridge last year in neighboring Mission. He’s among those who have asked President Biden to reconsider Title 42′s end date.
“Although our community is giving, well-prepared and proactive, no amount of preparation will allow for a local government such as the City of McAllen to respond to the dramatic rise in undocumented immigration that is anticipated,” said the mayor of the city of 150,000, only one in a string of communities along the border where residents are growing tired of waiting for immigration reform.
Andy Harvey, the police chief of nearby Pharr, a city with an important international bridge into Reynosa for produce, said bluntly: “We are not ready for it.”
“They haven’t done anything for reform of immigration,” said Harvey, a member of the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force, a national group that has pushed for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws to make immigrants less fearful.
“So here we are with Title 42, and we’re back to square one. So no progress has been made. And we are still dealing with the same things over and over, and nothing’s getting done.”
Staff writers Alfredo Corchado in El Paso and Imelda Garcia in Del Rio contributed to this report.