Title 42, the health decree allowing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials to quickly expel asylum seekers on the southern U.S. border, expired on May11. Under this policy, a person crossing illegally into the U.S. could be expelled multiple times without a fine or long-term banishment. Title 42 was replaced by Title 8, which is the longstanding U.S. border policy that deports, not expels people who cross illegally. Unlike Title 42, crossing illegally under Title 8 has consequences that could involve being fined or banned from attempting to access the process to legally enter the U.S. for years.
There was much confusion leading up to the changing of border policy, and many migrants were fed bad information from human traffickers that the end of Title 42 meant an open border in which they could freely cross. This did indeed cause an uptick in the numbers of migrants gathering in Mexican border cities such as Juarez, waiting for Title 42 to end. Some didn’t wait and surrendered themselves to CBP officials before May 11, causing cross-border delays and congestion at rescue missions and churches in cities such as El Paso.
On the day Title 42 expired, I drove from Santa Teresa, New Mexico, to downtown El Paso, where the bulk of migrants in the region have been entering the U.S. to seek asylum at the Bridge of the Americas. I, like everybody else, have been watching the national press reporting that the border would be chaos and a mess after the expiration of Title 42. For this very fact, I have tended to avoid downtown El Paso for the past few weeks.
Driving the 15 minutes between Santa Teresa and downtown El Paso took me along the border wall and Rio Grande. Upon entering Texas, I immediately saw strings of barbed wire that had been laid north of the river. There were Texas DPS and National Guard vehicles pointing towards Juarez. I drove cautiously along the border wall, fearful that migrants would be scaling this wall, entering the U.S., and running desperately across the border highway. However, I did not see any migrants crossing the river, being apprehended by officials, or crossing the road.
Arriving in downtown El Paso, I took a drive to a couple of rescue missions expecting to see migrants milling around the buildings seeking aid. I saw exactly one person with a backpack within the gates of the El Paso Rescue Mission. Driving around the streets, I saw some younger people with backpacks, but I could not tell if they were migrants or students who live in Juarez and come to school in El Paso on a daily basis.
I took a drive to the Sacred Heart Church, where there had been reports of hundreds, if not thousands of migrants arriving there for assistance. I arrived to see the road adjacent to the church blocked on both sides and a few migrants milling around on the street. Across from the church, three El Paso policemen were present. Some pedestrians, whom I perceived to be migrants, were walking down the sidewalk. However, driving around downtown El Paso felt like driving in a ghost town. I have never seen this area so calm and quiet in the late afternoon. I saw tens, not hundreds or thousands, of what I believed to be migrants on my trip. I subsequently returned a few more times on different days to monitor the situation. While the number of migrants in downtown El Paso fluctuated on certain days, they were by no means spilling out of shelters and into the streets in masses.
Did I, like so many other people, get swept up in the hyperbole that the northbound trek of migrants would be unmanageable and cause severe problems? Undoubtedly, there have been thousands of migrants entering border cities such as El Paso. However, as El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego stated, “We have a manageable crisis.” If migrants can prove that they have a certain level of fear factor because of political, religious, or other persecution back in their home countries, they will be paroled into the U.S., where they can wait as their asylum process unfolds.
Seeing such a deserted downtown El Paso, I began to wonder where the thousands of migrants had gone who were reported entering the U.S. in the weeks before the end of Title 42. It became obvious to me that migrants receiving parole in the U.S., who are not remanded to holding camps or shelters, arrange for quick transport by bus or other mode of transportation to live with relatives or associates while they wait for their asylum proceedings, which can often take more than a year. They are not generally staying in cities such as El Paso, but are traveling to cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and New York. Other migrants are mindful of the penalties that Title 8 can impose, and are choosing to use legal pathways such as the CBP mobile asylum app, to attempt to come to the U.S.
At present, public officials and non-governmental organizations seem to be handling the situation safely and efficiently. The shifting of resources and preparedness have been key to this success.
Next column: Why are we letting migrants into the U.S., and what can they do when they are here?