Asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border await the end of Title 42

When Mari Marin Bastidas first tried to seek asylum at the US border, she was turned away by authorities, who said a policy to slow the spread of COVID-19 meant her case would not even be heard.

Rejected, she returned to her home in the state of Michoacán in western Mexico.

Two years later, she’s back at the frontier to try again. Word has got around that the policy — known as Title 42 — is about to be repealed.

A person carries another person on their back while crossing a river

A smuggler carries a migrant across the Rio Grande near a busy border crossing in El Paso, Texas.

(John Moore/Getty Images)

“I decided to come because the opportunity presents itself,” said Bastidas, 29. “I’m not going back.”

The fate of the policy now rests with the US Supreme Court as concern and confusion rise on both sides of the border. Countless asylum seekers have gathered in Ciudad Juarez in recent weeks. Across the Rio Grande in El Paso, the mayor has declared a state of emergency in anticipation of a massive influx.

Bastidas, along with her 8-year-old daughter and two brothers, were among a large number of migrants waiting by a narrow section of the river.

Some waded over to meet border officials, either unaware that Title 42 was still in effect or willing to take their chances anyway.

Bastidas and her family decided to wait and made their way to a nearby migrant shelter. They initially had $500 to carry them over.

They plan to apply for asylum as they are afraid of a local gang, who she said threatened her family for failing to pay a monthly extortion fee of about $400. Another brother was murdered a few years ago by gang members using a similar scheme.

A boy holds a dog while facing a river

Colombian migrant Jaider, 18, holds his puppy Trucha as he looks across the Rio Grande to El Paso, Texas. He said he carried the dog throughout his overland trip from Colombia.

(John Moore/Getty Images)

Prior to Title 42, the United States reviewed all asylum applications, which often meant releasing migrants into the United States pending a court ruling on their cases — a process that can take years due to a large backlog. A small minority of asylum applications are ultimately accepted. Escape from poverty is not a valid basis for a claim.

Asylum seekers can be quickly expelled under Title 42, a decades-old public health measure revived by the Trump administration in the early days of the pandemic.

The Biden administration has defied the policy in court and continued to use it with the help of Mexico, which agreed to accept Central Americans and later Venezuelans turned away by the United States.

But last month a federal judge ruled that Title 42 is being used haphazardly and is no longer warranted as a pandemic public health measure. He ordered the cancellation until 12. 21.

About 19 Republican-led states appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that ending the policy would lead to a surge in new migrants, and on Monday — two days before the deadline — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. ruled that it would remain in force until the court decided the case.

If politics falls, it’s possible the Biden administration will find new ways to restrict asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, El Paso has adjusted to the day when asylum seekers can no longer be dismissed out of hand.

Migrants stand behind barbed wire as a barrier to entry into El Paso, Texas

Migrants turning into US officials stand behind a barbed wire barrier at Mexico’s El Paso border.

(Christian Chavez/Associated Press)

At a popular crossing along the Rio Grande this week, members of the Texas Army National Guard lined the riverbank with barbed wire as a deterrent and stood guard alongside their Humvees.

However, according to the Department of Homeland Security, an average of 1,500 migrants per day are already being taken into custody by border police in the El Paso area. After their fingerprints and basic information are taken, many are identified under Title 42. Some may be taken to an immigration detention facility.

Others who may qualify for a Title 42 exemption — usually for humanitarian reasons or because Mexico restricts the number of migrants from different countries — can be released and allowed to remain in the United States, often with a court date.

This week more than 50 migrants stayed at the Annunciation House north of the border. With cots in the chapel and playroom, the shelter sleeps 60 people.

People with luggage sit outside on the sidewalk under a mural

Migrants eat and wait for help while camping on a street in downtown El Paso.

(Andres Leighton/Associated Press)

Most move out within 48 hours to live with relatives or friends. Others have been bused to religious communities across the country, which have offered to take them in.

The quick processing is important to make room for new migrants, said Ruben Garcia, who founded and runs the shelter.

“If we’re struggling to deal with the number of people arriving and we haven’t even lifted Title 42, can you imagine what will happen when Title 42 is lifted?” he said.

In anticipation, the city has opened up its convention center for temporary housing. About 200 of the 1,000 beds there were occupied on Thursday night.

However, some migrants are already living on the streets.

Not far from the convention center — where skaters glided around a large ice rink next to a lit Christmas tree — dozens of Venezuelan migrants had camped along two blocks of sidewalk. Cardboard sheets served as mattresses. Locals brought donations of clothing.

A 26-year-old named Yesimar – who spoke on condition that her last name not be used because she had just crossed the border illegally – wrapped herself in a blanket. It was 7pm and the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees.

She and her husband fled Venezuela five years ago and have lived in Peru. It took them three months to reach the US border. With Title 42 still there, they felt they had no choice but to sneak across.

They came through a gap in the border fence and ducked into a McDonald’s to change and catch their breath after evading authorities.

A person climbing over a fence

A migrant crosses a border fence after evading law enforcement in El Paso.

(Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“The truth is that they don’t give us the opportunity to come to this country,” Yesimar said. “We never thought of entering the country illegally.”

Back in Ciudad Juarez, many more migrants are still waiting.

Alexander Diaz, his wife and their 3-year-old son were down to around $100. The 24-year-old Venezuelan cut the hair of fellow migrants in an alley near the Rio Grande for $2.

The family has found a place in an emergency shelter, but the bathroom is not working. “Imagine enduring the cold without a shower,” Diaz said.

Silhouette of about 10 people

Migrants spend the night outside the border fence while waiting for asylum applications in El Paso.

(John Moore/Getty Images)

Jesús Carrera, 22, said he makes $15 a day washing car windows at a stoplight. A generous local provided a place to sleep for him and other migrants, and he speaks daily to his mother in Venezuela, who urges him to come home. He hasn’t seen her since he left the country six years ago in hopes of escaping poverty.

He tried to apply for asylum at the US border in October but was deported under Title 42 and transferred to the Mexican state of Chiapas. He came back to the border last weekend because he thought politics was going to end.

“I ask God to change my luck,” he said. “It’s time.”

Rosalia Castro Sosa, a Sears saleswoman from southern Mexico, arrived in Ciudad Juarez Wednesday thinking that Title 42 had been lifted as planned.

She immediately crossed the river, turned herself in, and waited in a long line in the cold for hours for officers to write down her information. Then they dropped her on the Mexican side of a border bridge.

A man in the river helps balance a woman boarding

Migrants cross the Rio Grande border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

(Christian Chavez/Associated Press)

Pending the cancellation of the policy, Sosa moved to church accommodation. She made some money by opening the door for customers entering convenience stores. A local restaurant fed here in exchange for waiters. She hopes to work in the US to fund ear surgery for her 9-year-old son.

“In the name of God, I’ll make it,” she said. “I don’t know how, but I will do it.”

Many of the 73 migrants were waiting in the Good Samaritans’ emergency shelter to see a doctor. Migrants can stay for several months while awaiting appointments with immigration officials, and during this time children attend school – where they take English classes. Migrants can also receive therapy.

Pastor Juan Fierro, who runs the shelter, said he views the end of Title 42 with skepticism.

“How many times have you said it’s over?” he said.

Miller, a staff writer, reported from Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. Special correspondent Gabriela Minjares in Ciudad Juarez and staff writer Hamed Aleaziz in Healdsburg, California contributed to this report.

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