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U.S. prepares for migrant tidal wave

Border Patrol agents anticipate a humanitarian crisis

Jason Owens, the Chief Patrol Agent for the Del Rio Sector, at a border patrol press conference and demonstration on April 26 in Eagle Pass, Texas Bonnie Pritchett

U.S. prepares for migrant tidal wave

Later this month, 1,500 U.S. troops will deploy to the U.S.-Mexico border in anticipation of the end of the pandemic-era no-entry policy, Title 42. The troops will assist U.S. Border Patrol and local law enforcement for 90 days in mostly administrative and transport roles, Fox News reported after speaking with two senior U.S. officials.

But a fresh burst of border activity already beat them there.

Agents apprehended 22,000 immigrants along the southern border in the three days before May 1, according to Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz. Border authorities are expecting thousands more. Across the border from El Paso, Texas, an estimated 35,000 immigrants are waiting to cross into a city where shelters are already overflowing. Videos circulating online depict hundreds of immigrants already spilling into sidewalks and streets. El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of emergency on Monday.

Title 42 is a public health provision activated by former President Donald Trump in March 2020. It allows officials to expel certain immigrants before they could ask for asylum. After months of legal wrangling, the policy is set to end as the U.S. COVID-19 public health emergency on May 11. On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security released its plan to manage the wave of immigrants that is expected to follow. Border Patrol agents are gearing up for heavy traffic in border communities.

“Title 42 isn’t being used as extensively as some people realize,” said Jason Owens, chief Border Patrol agent for the Del Rio Sector. The policy mainly applies to single adults who don’t meet the qualifications for a parole program that President Joe Biden announced in January, Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told WORLD. It also applies to some Mexican families.

“There are so many exemptions to Title 42 right now,” Chishti said, “it’s more a talking point than it is a tool.”

But, Owens said, lifting the measure could send a message to immigrants waiting in Mexico that they should try and cross illegally, which could provoke a surge.

DHS said it will return to policies laid out under U.S. Code Title 8 as soon as Title 42 is lifted. Under Title 8, immigrants who cross the southern border illegally between ports of entry are subject to “expedited removal” unless they make a legitimate asylum claim. “Individuals who unlawfully cross the U.S. southwest border … will be barred from reentry to the United States for at least five years if ordered removed,” DHS stated.

The new guidelines assume that people who show up between ports of entry are ineligible for asylum unless they meet certain exceptions.

“But that’s the big assumption,” Chishti said. “We don’t know whether that will pan out.”

The administration may also implement an additional rule to limit asylum claims, Chishti said. The proposed rule mandates that people who cross between ports of entry will be turned away unless they can prove they have been denied asylum in a third country. It does not apply to unaccompanied children. It also exempts immigrants at risk of a medical emergency, imminent violence, and sex trafficking or involuntary servitude. The Biden administration has published the proposed rule but has not announced approval of a final version.

If an immigrant who crossed illegally asked for asylum and met one of these exceptions, he or she would be eligible for a “credible fear” interview, the first step in the asylum process. To speed up the proceedings, the administration said it will boost the number of asylum officers at the border to conduct these interviews while immigrants are held in DHS facilities. Immigrants can only remain in holding facilities for 72 hours, so asylum officers will conduct many of these interviews virtually in newly installed phone booths. Authorities will place families who cross illegally on alternatives to detention until they determine whether they can stay in the country.

The administration might run out of detention space if it cannot move people through the process quickly enough. “That depends a lot on the volume of people,” said Chishti.

Immigrants can also continue to use the Customs and Border Protection mobile app to schedule asylum appointments at ports of entry. Owens hopes more immigrants will use the app instead of crossing the border illegally. He worries that eventually every sector will become overwhelmed. Last year, agents from the northern border were forced to come down to help.

“We already are seeing higher numbers than we saw this time last year,” he said. “The busier we get, the more processing is required, the more processing is required, the more agents I have to put to that task at the expense of being out in the field on patrol.”

While working to create enforceable policies, the Biden administration has also sought to create new ways for immigrants to enter legally.

Several new Regional Processing Centers located in key areas along the most common route to the United States aim to provide a safer, more accessible pathway for immigrants to apply for asylum in either the United States, Canada, or Spain. The centers are a part of a combined effort to deal with Northern Hemisphere migration laid out in the Los Angeles Declaration that Biden signed last summer. The first centers will open in Guatemala and Colombia, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a news conference in Washington. He expects about 5,000 immigrants per month to request asylum in one of the three countries.

For those looking to reunite with family members already in the United States, DHS created a new program for immigrants coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Columbia. The administration also committed to taking in twice as many refugees from the Western Hemisphere.

As immigrants continue to rush toward the relative safety of the United States, border agents anticipate a humanitarian crisis. Last week, Border Patrol agents for the Del Rio Sector gathered in a grassy park along the Rio Grande a few blocks from a port of entry in Eagle Pass, Texas—the epicenter of border crossings last summer. The river rushed swiftly as agents demonstrated how they rescue immigrants caught in its hidden currents using long yellow ropes and rafts attached to jet skis.

They showed the attendees an immigrant’s makeshift raft: thin bamboo sticks strapped together with zip ties sporting several water bottles and bright colored floaties. “So many times when something bad happens, we’re the first ones there,” said Owens. He wishes more immigrants understood the dangers of crossing the turbulent river or wandering for hours in the hot sun across remote ranches.

“With the increased flow inevitably comes the increased deaths,” he said. “With the increased risk is the increased tragedies that are associated with it.”

Leo Briceno

Leo is a graduate of Patrick Henry College. He reports on politics from Washington, D.C.

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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