EL PASO — A record number of migrants — more than 10,000 — were recently apprehended at the US-Mexico border in a 24-hour period, fueling fears over what comes next when a controversial immigration policy expires this week.
Nowhere are the realities of what some have termed a border “crisis” more evident than in the Texas city of El Paso.
Here, migrants — many of them confused about the impending rule changes — have been left sleeping rough in makeshift campsites on city streets over the last several days.
Several thousand were camped out earlier this week around a single church in the city center.
“We’ve never seen this before,” Mayor Oscar Leeser said at a border security expo just streets away from the campsite on Wednesday. “Something has to change. As a community, we can’t do this forever.”
The worst, officials say, may be yet to come.
US President Joe Biden acknowledged earlier this week that the border would be “chaotic for a while” despite the best efforts of authorities.
First implemented in 2020, Title 42 allows US authorities to swiftly expel would-be migrants attempting to cross the border from Mexico – including those seeking humanitarian asylum – using the Covid-19 pandemic as justification.
But with the policy due to expire a minute before midnight on May 11, officials fear border authorities may be overwhelmed by an influx of migrants even as record numbers in recent years have already strained resources and left border towns scrambling for solutions.
Leeser warned that across from El Paso alone, an estimated 10,000 migrants were “lined up at the border, waiting to come in”.
Joe Sanchez, the regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, compared the situation to a stampede at a football game – only many times larger.
“Imagine 60,000 people in one location, and all of a sudden an alert comes on and says there’s a bomb in the building. What happens after that? Chaos… It’s very hard to control and very hard to manage,” he told the BBC.
“That’s exactly what it’s like on the border.”
For those migrants – and those already in the US – the future is uncertain.
In a bid to stop the flow, the Biden administration introduced strict new rules for asylum seekers on Wednesday, including barring those who cross illegally from applying for asylum for five years.
US officials have also announced new changes aimed at encouraging migrants to seek legal pathways to the country, as well as strict penalties and swift deportation for those who cross illegally.
Additionally, about 24,000 law officers have been stationed along the length of the 2,000 mile (3,218km) border, along with thousands of National Guard troops and active-duty military personnel sent to help Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The new measures come amid an increased burden on CBP. In the El Paso sector alone, officials say that officials have recorded 265,000 migrant “encounters” since the current fiscal year began on October 1 — a 134% increase from the prior year. Currently, officers in the area are averaging about 1,700 migrant detentions daily.
More than 27,000 migrants were in US custody at one time earlier this week, well above CBP’s existing capacity to house them.
In El Paso, authorities have been left to contend both with “unprocessed” migrants who crossed illegally, as well as those who have been released from detention to await a court date with an immigration judge. Some migrants in El Paso have told the BBC they will have to wait years before appearing in court.
To cope with the migrants on city streets, on Tuesday CBP and El Paso police launched an “enforcement” operation asking migrants to head to the nearest CBP facility for processing.
Those who were found to have legitimate asylum claims were given dates to appear before an immigration judge, while others were detained for eventual removal. One woman told the BBC that her court date was in 2025 in Miami, Florida.
Migrants in the area also said that some had run, fearful of deportation, while others had reluctantly presented themselves to CBP officers in the hopes that they would be allowed to stay.
“It was crazy. They came to tell us early in the morning, when it was still dark,” said Luis Angel, a 29-year-old Cuban who was paroled into El Paso awaiting his court date. “Some of my friends are still detained.”
Speaking on Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that much of the problem stemmed from smugglers who had “been hard at work spreading false information that the border would be open” after May 11.
“It will not be. They are lying,” he added. “We urge migrants once again not to believe the smugglers who are lying to them solely to make a profit. We are building lawful pathways for you to come to the United States.”
Among the steps being taken are the opening of regional processing centers aimed at helping migrants apply to come to the US, as well as expanded access to CBP One, an app which migrants can use to schedule asylum appointments.
CBP also plans to ramp up efforts to counter misinformation to combat rumors about border policies.
Still, many migrants in El Paso said they found the rules confusing and had heard conflicting information about what might happen before or after the policy ends.
“The rules definitely influenced me. I heard that with Title 42 they’d return me to Mexico to try again until I get in,” said Daniel, a Venezuelan.
“But now they’ll return everyone to their country,” he said. “If I go back to Venezuela, who knows, they might torture or imprison me. That’s how it is there.” BBC