With Pandemic Restrictions Poised to Lift, Thousands Converge on Border
EL PASO — Migrants streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday and others gathered in makeshift camps, waiting for the midnight end to America’s pandemic-era Title 42 restrictions that officials worried could trigger a major new wave of migration that strains border facilities and cities across the country.
The desperate pockets of humanity from nations all over the world swelled on both sides of the border even as the authorities in Washington prepared to impose tough, new rules the moment that Title 42 would no longer be in effect.
All along the nearly 2,000 miles of border, agents, soldiers and local officials were striving to maintain order as migrants waded across the Rio Grande, lined up at international bridges, filled federal immigration processing centers and huddled on the sidewalks of U.S. border towns.
The latest surge is the result of global shifts in migration patterns as economic and political forces displace millions across the globe, sending many toward the United States to seek refuge. It comes after two years in which a Democratic-led overhaul of the immigration system has stalled in the face of Republican opposition and the Biden administration has leaned on some of former President Donald J. Trump’s harsh border policies.
Mr. Trump and then Mr. Biden each used their emergency authority, under the guise of limiting disease transmission, to manage record-breaking flows of people at the border. Now the end of the Covid-19 pandemic emergency after three years has forced the United States to once again confront its international obligations to shelter those in need.
It is a moment that appears certain to inflame one of the country’s most politically fraught and divisive issues, with criticism for Mr. Biden coming from all sides.
The images of desperate migrants and overburdened officials played out across the border, from California to Texas.
In Piedras Negras, across the Mexican border from Eagle Pass in Texas, migrants and Border Patrol agents faced off across the Rio Grande. A makeshift village sprang up between two walls that separate Tijuana and San Diego, with hundreds of people huddled under Mylar blankets. At Gate 40 of the border wall between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, officials let a group of migrants cross after they tried crawling through holes in the concertina wire fence.
“All I want to do is work and raise my son somewhere where we aren’t afraid of violence,” said Francisco Ortiz, 32, who arrived in Piedras Negras from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with his wife and 1-year-old son. He said he was hoping to work in construction in the United States, but was worried.
“We want to follow the rules but it’s hard,” he said.
The El Paso City Council extended a state of emergency to handle the large number of arrivals and converted two vacant schools into shelters. In McAllen, Texas, the city set up extra tents at Anzalduas Park, next to a busy migration point.
Anxiety about new arrivals spread well beyond the border. In New York City, immigration advocates held signs outside City Hall that said, “Immigrants are New York,” a day after Mayor Eric Adams moved to ease the city’s right-to-shelter rules. Mr. Adams has said that the influx of migrants will cost the city more than $4 billion over the next two fiscal years.
“This is just wrong, what is happening to New York City,” Mr. Adams said on Wednesday.
In Washington, Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, said officials were as prepared as they could be given the legal and funding constraints of an immigration system that he said still operated under outdated assumptions from the early 1990s, when migration was very different.
He said that more patrol officers, troops and Department of Homeland Security employees had been sent to the border. But he agreed on Thursday with Mr. Biden’s assessment two days earlier that the situation along the border was “going to be chaotic for a while.”
Mr. Mayorkas said it would take time for the administration’s tough new policies — including restrictions on asylum that have been condemned by human rights advocates — to serve as deterrence for migrants who were considering whether to flee from their homes.
“Our plan will deliver results,” Mr. Mayorkas confidently told reporters at the White House on Thursday.
Republicans did not seem inclined to be patient. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy jeered Mr. Biden for “record crossings, record careless and record chaos” in a speech on the House floor, accusing Democrats of having done “nothing” to head off the onslaught of migrants.
“They treat the border like President Biden does,” Mr. McCarthy said of his Democratic colleagues in Congress. “Ignore it and hope that it goes away.”
House Republicans pushed through legislation on Thursday to crack down on unlawful migration. But the bill appeared likely to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where lawmakers were struggling to reach agreement on a different measure pairing border security enhancements with an expansion of avenues for migrants to enter the United States legally.
“We, all of us, want to have an orderly system; the disorder is obvious at the border, but this bill won’t fix that,” Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, said of the House Republican effort.
The increase in migration at the border with Mexico is far from unprecedented. Previous surges have severely tested the response from federal and state authorities and nonprofit organizations. Despite that history, people along the border said the current situation seemed extraordinary.
Even before the official end of the Title 42, the holding capacity of the Border Patrol had already been exceeded with more than 28,000 migrants in custody. The agency has more than twice the number of migrants it had in early November, though it is becoming more efficient: The average time in custody has climbed only about three hours.
In Brownsville, Texas, alone, close to 2,000 people have already crossed in recent days, a rate that the Border Patrol chief, Raul Ortiz, said he had not seen in a decade.
“It is straining our capacity,” said Eddie Treviño, the county judge for Cameron County, Texas, which includes Brownsville. Oscar Leeser, the mayor of El Paso, said of the sheer the number of migrants: “We’ve never seen this before.”
Officials in Laredo, Texas, a major route for commercial traffic about 150 miles southwest of San Antonio, were bracing for an influx of migrants transported from overwhelmed border processing centers in El Paso and Brownsville.
Michael Smith, a pastor at the Holding Institute in Laredo, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, said the center had received about 450 people, mostly Venezuelans. He expected that number to spike on Sunday and Monday, as people were released from government custody.
“Eventually it’s just going to explode,” he said.
At Annunciation House, a large shelter in El Paso, migrants from South America and the Caribbean filled rooms with bunk beds. Among them was Erwin Gomez, 25, of Venezuela, who shattered his arm last week as he and three friends climbed over the border wall.
“I was hoping to work construction, but with this arm I will have to do other work,” said Mr. Gomez, who will undergo surgery on his wrist later this week. He hopes to join a sister and brother-in-law in Dallas.
Nearby in another bed was Merejildo del Orbe, of the Dominican Republic, whose leg rested in a plastic boot, pins sticking out of his foot and shin. After paying $16,000 to a smuggler, Mr. del Orbe, 39, finally reached the border. But when he scaled the 30-foot wall to reach El Paso, he slipped and fell to the ground on the U.S. side. He was preparing to undergo surgery on his left leg before continuing his journey to the Bronx.
“I know this suffering was worth it,” he said.
One Venezuelan family on Wednesday ditched the personal belongings they had carried with them for their 2,000-mile journey to Matamoros, a Mexican city on the border with Brownsville.
The father had stripped down to his shorts, his bare chest heaving with nervous breaths as he watched a group of migrants traverse the shoulder-deep waters of the Rio Grande.
Family members, who said they were escaping poverty and violence in Venezuela, had endured perilous jungle terrain, smugglers who sought to kidnap them for ransom and corrupt police officers who extorted them. Now, they were trying to calm their petrified 4-year-old daughter.
“I don’t want to drown!” she shrieked, sobbing as her mother, eyes welling up, tried to get her to climb down the banks to the water below.
“My love, it’s OK, we just have to go into the water and it’s done,” the mother said to her child. The girl’s sobs pierced through the sound of vendors selling their wares. The jingle of an ice cream cart played in the backdrop.
Francisco Ponce, a coordinator with the Red Cross, kept a watchful eye on the migrants — about 300 of them — as they paddled through the water to Texas soil. The Red Cross had found three bodies of drowned migrants along this portion of the river over the last week, he said, and the agency had an ambulance ready in case of another emergency.
Mr. Ponce patted the girl’s head as she whimpered in fear.
“To give her a future, don’t go into the water,” he pleaded with the girl’s father. “She is scared.”
The father took a few deep breaths. Minutes later, he grabbed his daughter’s hand as she cried again, and he led her into the water. They eventually scrambled up the river bank into Texas, where Border Patrol officers awaited them.
Even for those who make it into the United States, the future remains uncertain. Border officials said many would not have a valid claim for asylum and would be quickly deported back to their home country or Mexico.
Others will be given an opportunity to stay while their cases are decided. In Yuma, Ariz., on Thursday, fifteen buses carrying migrants from Ghana, China, Uzbekistan and India were expected to leave, bound for the Phoenix airport and bus stations where the migrants would continue their journey into the country.
About three miles from the border’s largest port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, about 100 migrants reached their hands through the border wall as aid workers distributed water bottles, tarps, apples, protein bars and diapers.
Further down the border in Texas, American authorities deployed a helicopter to monitor the Rio Grande as migrants tried to cross its waters.
“Take me to the other side!” one Venezuelan migrant yelled at the helicopter, looking up to the sky. “I’m going crazy in Matamoros!”
Reporting was contributed by Edgar Sandoval from Brownsville, Texas; Karen Zraick from Laredo, Texas; Eileen Sullivan from El Paso; J. David Goodman from Houston; Jack Healy from Yuma, Ariz.; Natalie Kitroeff and Emiliano Rodríguez Mega from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; Karoun Demirjian from Washington; and Soumya Karlamangla and Sarah Kerr from Tijuana, Mexico.