Border appears calm after lifting of pandemic asylum restrictions

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — The border between the U.S. and Mexico was relatively calm Friday, offering few signs of the chaos that was feared following a rush by worried migrants to enter the U.S. before the end of pandemic-related immigration restrictions.

Less than 24 hours after the rules known as Title 42 were lifted, migrants and government officials were still assessing the effect of the change and the new regulations adopted by President Joe Biden's administration to stabilize the region.

“We did not see any substantial increase in immigration this morning,” said Blas Nunez-Neto assistant secretary for border and immigration policy at the Department of Homeland Security. He said the agency did not have specific numbers.

Migrants along the border continued to wade into the Rio Grande to take their chances getting into the U.S. while defying officials shouting for them to turn back. Others hunched over cellphones trying to access an appointment-scheduling app that that is a centerpiece of the new system. Migrants with appointments walked across a bridge hoping for a new life. And lawsuits sought to stop some of the measures.

The Biden administration has said the revamped system is designed to crack down on illegal crossings and to offer a new legal pathway for migrants who often pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to get them to the border. On Friday, Biden commended Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez for his country’s collaboration with the U.S. and Canada to establish migration hubs in Latin America where asylum seekers will be able to apply for refuge.

Migrants are now essentially barred from seeking asylum in the U.S. if they did not first apply online or seek protection in the countries they traveled through. Families allowed in as their immigration cases progress will face curfews and GPS monitoring.

Across the river from El Paso in Ciudad Juárez, many migrants watched their cellphones in hopes of getting a coveted appointment to seek entry. The application to register to enter the U.S. had changed, and some were explaining to others how to use it. Most were resigned to wait.

“I hope it’s a little better and that the appointments are streamlined a little more,” said Yeremy Depablos, 21, a Venezuelan traveling with seven cousins who has been waiting in the city for a month. Fearing deportation, Depablos did not want to cross illegally. “We have to do it the legal way.”

The legal pathways touted by the administration consist of a program that permits up to 30,000 people a month from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter if they apply online with a financial sponsor and enter through an airport.

About 100 processing centers are opening in Guatemala, Colombia and elsewhere for migrants to apply to go to the U.S., Spain or Canada. Up to 1,000 can enter daily through land crossings with Mexico if they snag an appointment on the app.

If it works, the system could fundamentally alter how migrants come to the southern border. But Biden, who is running for reelection, faces withering criticism from migrant advocates, who say he's abandoning more humanitarian methods, and from Republicans, who claim he's soft on border security.

At the Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana on Friday, a few migrants approached U.S. authorities after not being able to access the appointment app. One of them, a Salvadoran man named Jairo, said he was fleeing death threats back home.

“We are truly afraid,” said Jairo who was traveling with his partner and their 3-year-old son and declined to share his last name. “We can’t remain any longer in Mexico and we can’t go back to Guatemala or El Salvador. If the U.S. can’t take us, we hope they can direct us to another country that can.”

Farther east, small groups of Haitian migrants with appointments to request asylum crossed the Gateway International Bridge connecting Matamoros, Mexico, with Brownsville, Texas. They crossed with the assistance of a nongovernmental organization, passing the usual commuter traffic of students and workers lined up on the bridge's pedestrian path.

In downtown El Paso, a few dozen migrants lingered outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church and shelter where as recently as Tuesday nearly 2,000 migrants were camped. Faith leaders in the city are striving to provide shelter, legal advice and prayer for migrants as they navigate new restrictions.

The Rev. Daniel Mora said most of the migrants took heed of flyers distributed this week by U.S. immigration authorities offering a “last chance” to submit to processing and left. El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said that 1,800 migrants turned themselves over to Customs and Border Protection on Thursday.

Melissa López, executive director for Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services at El Paso, said many migrants have been willing to follow the legal pathway created by the federal government, but there is also fear about deportation and possible criminal penalties for people who cross the border illegally.

Ruben Garcia, director of the Annunciation House shelter in El Paso and coordinator for a regional network on migrant shelters, said he fears that migrants passing through Mexico may be diverted by smugglers away from cities with humanitarian infrastructure toward remote, desolate stretches of the border. He said thousands of migrants are currently passing through two U.S. immigration processing centers in El Paso, amid uncertainty about ensuing deportations and monitored releases.

The lull in border crossings follows a recent surge of crossings by migrants in hopes of being allowed to stay in the United States before the Title 42 restrictions expired.

Title 42 had been in place since March 2020. It allowed border officials to quickly return asylum seekers back over the border on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. has declared the national emergency over, ending the restrictions.

While Title 42 prevented many from seeking asylum, it carried no legal consequences, encouraging repeat attempts. After Thursday, migrants face being barred from entering the U.S. for five years and possible criminal prosecution.

Border holding facilities were already far beyond capacity in the run-up to Title 42's expiration. Officials had orders to release migrants with a notice to report to an immigration office if overcrowding and other factors became critical.

But late Thursday, a federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump temporarily halted the administration’s plans to release people into the U.S. and set a court date on whether to extend the ruling. Customs and Border Protection said it would comply, but called it a “harmful ruling that will result in unsafe overcrowding.”

Other parts of the administration's immigration plan were also in legal peril.

Advocacy groups including the ACLU sued the administration on its new asylum rules minutes before they took effect. Their lawsuit alleges the administration policy is no different than one adopted by Trump, which was rejected by the same court.

The Biden administration says its rule is different, arguing that it’s not an outright ban but imposes a higher burden of proof to get asylum and that it pairs restrictions with other newly opened legal pathways.

ACLU National Political Director Maribel Hernández Rivera said many new required steps were unrealistic.

“Asylum is not something you schedule when you are fleeing for your life," she said.

___

Gonzalez reported from Brownsville, Texas, and Spagat from Tijuana, Mexico. Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Rebecca Santana in Washington; Christopher Sherman in Mexico City; Julie Watson and Suman Naishadham in Tijuana, Mexico; Gerardo Carrillo in Matamoros, Mexico; Maria Verza in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; Gisela Salomon in Miami; and Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico contributed to this report.