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Asylum-seekers still face tough new rules when Title 42 restrictions end Thursday

Migrants camp out between a barbed-wire barrier and the border fence between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez. Thousands are expected to seeks asylum when pandemic restrictions this week.
Christian Chavez
Migrants camp out between a barbed-wire barrier and the border fence between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez. Thousands are expected to seeks asylum when pandemic restrictions this week.

Updated May 9, 2023 at 2:00 PM ET

With pandemic border restrictions set to end in days, the number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico is already climbing. And nearly everyone at the border — shelter operators and immigrant advocates, border city mayors, even the secretary of homeland security — is preparing for an influx that will strain the resources of U.S. immigration authorities and humanitarian groups.

"There's going to be chaos" at first, says Priscilla Orta, an immigration attorney with Lawyers For Good Government in Brownsville, Texas. "But hopefully within the next week or two, there will become a rhythm."

Tens of thousands of people are waiting in Mexico after fleeing from violence, poverty and political instability all over the hemisphere. And they're increasingly desperate for a chance to seek asylum in the U.S., after being effectively blocked by the restrictions known as Title 42.

But migrants who cross the border illegally will encounter a new set of policies that could push many of them right back to Mexico.

Migrants are 'scared and desperate'

In Tijuana, a dozen children race around a migrant shelter called Juventud 2000, squeezing between rows and rows of tents packed into a modest warehouse. This shelter, like most in Tijuana, has reached far above its official capacity.

"There's a lot of people showing up, several groups of families knock on the door everyday, and because the shelter is beyond capacity they are not allowed to come in," said Yasmine, who's staying at the shelter along with her 1-year-old son.

She doesn't want her last name used because she fled from Guerrero in southern Mexico after she was raped, she says, for being a lesbian. And she doesn't want the men who did it to find her.

Yasmine and other migrants at this shelter are eager to apply for asylum in the U.S. But there's a lot of confusion, she says, about what will happen when the Title 42 restrictions finally end.

"Of course we have been talking here as a community about the possibility of crossing illegally if we don't have other options," she said in Spanish. "That is what's causing us stress right now."

At the far end of the border, hundreds of migrants are living in camps in Reynosa and Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from South Texas. Priscilla Orta says she and other immigration lawyers are counseling them to be patient, and to wait for a chance to cross the border legally to make their asylum claims.

But many don't want to wait. They're afraid that "something tremendous is going to change, and they will never have an opportunity, and now is the time," Orta said. "So people are beginning to attempt to cross even though everyone tells them not to because they are scared and desperate."

GOP pushes for an extension of Title 42

The Department of Homeland Security is preparing for an influx of migrants, requesting 1,500 active-duty troops to support the Border Patrol temporarily.

"There is no question that this is going to be extremely challenging," said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas during a visit to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas on Friday.

With Title 42 set to end at 11:59 p.m. ET Thursday, Mayorkas said federal authorities would lean heavily on immigration laws that were in place before the pandemic, known as Title 8. Those laws carry stiffer penalties for migrants who are caught crossing the border illegally, including the possibility of a five-year ban on entry to the U.S. for migrants who are deported.

Mayorkas is encouraging migrants to apply for new legal pathwaysbefore leaving home, and to avoid making the dangerous journey to the U.S.-Mexico border.

"The message is very clear," Mayorkas said. "The border is not open. It has not been open and it will not be open subsequent to May 11."

Mayorkas is also urging migrants who reach the border to use the CBP One app to schedule appointments at official ports of entry instead of crossing illegally to request asylum — though migrants have complained widely about a shortage of appointments, and other problems with the app.

DHS announced that it would begin making more appointments available starting this week, and would roll out other scheduling changes intended to make the app work more fairly.

Border Patrol detention facilities are already near capacity in parts of the border, and the mayors of several border cities are bracing for the possibility that large numbers of migrants could be released from custody in the days ahead. Several, including Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso, have already declared states of emergency in anticipation.

The looming end of Title 42 has brought renewed criticism from Republicans and immigration hardliners. They already blame the Biden administration's immigration policies for the record number of migrants apprehended at the border over the last two years, and some are urging the administration to change course and keep Title 42 in place.

"All hell is gonna break loose along the border," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at a press conference last week. "And eventually will flow into the interior of the United States."

Sharp new limits on asylum

While the early days after Title 42 lifts may be chaotic, immigration experts say what comes next could look a lot like what's already happening at the border.

The Biden administration has announced a combination of new legal pathways for migrants who can qualify, paired with tough new restrictions on asylum to discourage migrants from crossing illegally. And it's getting ready to enforce those new rules.

The agency that handles initial screening interviews, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is redirecting hundreds of asylum officers to focus on the border.

"They're in this sort of all hands on deck situation," said Michael Knowles, a spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees Council 119, which represents asylum officers.

The union has come out strongly against proposed new rules that would make it much harder for migrants to get asylum if they cross the border illegally after passing through Mexico or another country. Knowles argues that's a violation of U.S. immigration law, which allows migrants to seek asylum regardless of how they arrived on U.S. soil — and a betrayal of the country's values.

"These new rules would effectively prevent our asylum officers from giving those asylum-seekers a fair hearing," Knowles said.

The government of Mexico agreed last week to continue taking back migrants from four countries — Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua — when they're deported from the U.S.

That's critical to the Biden administration's plans because those countries account for a large and growing share of border-crossings, and it's difficult for the administration to send them back because of strained diplomatic relations.

So Title 42 may be ending — but for many asylum-seekers, the future may not be very different at all.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.