‘Risk it all’: migration wave for which the US is preparing

Norman Ray
Norman Ray

Global Courant 2023-05-08 19:32:13

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Dozens of Venezuelan men waited under a set of white tents on the US-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas. Some sat on curbs and others leaned on metal barricades. When the gates finally opened, the long line of men slowly pushed their way up the footpath to the bridge and crossed the Rio Grande River into Mexico.

In recent weeks, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have been facilitating these evictions three times a day as some 30,000 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, have entered the U.S. in this region since mid-April. That’s compared to 1,700 migrants encountered by Border Patrol agents in the first two weeks of April.

On the other side of the state, in El Paso, officials are dealing with a new wave of migrants and are concerned that thousands are still waiting to cross.

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All this comes as the US prepares for the end of a policy related to the coronavirus pandemic that has allowed it to quickly deport many migrants, and raises concerns about whether the end of immigration restrictions under Title 42 of a 1944 public health law will mean even more migrants trying to cross the southern border.

“We have been preparing for quite some time and we are ready. What we expect is indeed an increase. And what we’re doing is planning for different levels of an increase,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said last week while visiting South Texas. But he also stressed that the situation at the border is “extremely challenging”.

He was speaking from a location in Brownsville where US officials had pitched a tent and set up facilities such as portable bathrooms for migrants. He said it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of the recent Venezuelan surge, but said the US is working with Mexico to address it and predicted change “very soon”.

Many of those crossing the border enter through Brownsville, just north of the Mexican border town of Matamoros. The city was rocked by a new crisis on Sunday when an SUV plowed into people waiting at a bus stop opposite the city’s migrant shelter. Eight people, mostly men from Venezuela, were killed.

Ricardo Marquez, a 30-year-old Venezuelan man, arrived at a shelter in McAllen after crossing the border with his wife and 5-month-old child in Brownsville. They left Venezuela because his daughter needs surgery.

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“I was faced with the decision to stay there or risk everything for my daughter,” he said. They had crossed the Rio Grande after spending a month in Matamoros trying to get an appointment through an app the US uses to schedule appointments for undocumented migrants to come to the border and seek entry.

Officials in President Joe Biden’s administration say they have been preparing for more than a year for Title 42 to end. The strategy revolves around providing more legal avenues for migrants to get to the US without the perilous journey to the border risk. That includes things like setting up centers abroad where migrants can apply to emigrate, as well as a humanitarian parole process already in place with 30,000 slots a month for people from four countries to come to the US. As of May 12, they are expanding available appointments through the CBP One app that Marquez tried to use. When it launched, many migrants and advocates criticized the app, saying there were technology problems and there simply weren’t enough appointments.

The strategy is also heavy on consequences. The US is proposing a rule that severely restricts asylum policies to migrants who first transit through another country, quickly screening migrants seeking asylum at the border and deporting those who do not qualify, and a five-year return ban on those who be deported.

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Many of these fallout have been harshly criticized by immigrant rights groups who have gone so far as to compare the policies to those of then-President Donald Trump and say that the right to seek asylum on American soil is sacred. Much of the Biden administration strategy also faces legal jeopardy in the coming weeks. The proposed rule restricting asylum will almost certainly be the subject of lawsuits. And Republican states want to end the Democratic administration’s use of humanitarian parole on such a large scale.

The administration has also increased immigration and customs enforcement flights to remove people from the country — flights like one that recently departed from an airport in Harlingen, Texas. Shortly after sunrise, three buses pulled up next to an airplane. One by one, migrants got off the bus. They were wearing handcuffs and leg cuffs and surgical masks. First they were beaten for contraband, then slowly walked up the stairs to the plane. A total of 133 migrants were returned to their home country of Guatemala.

But those flights only work if countries accept them. Venezuela does not. And Colombia says it is suspending deportation flights over “cruel and degrading” treatment of migrants.

Government officials say they are using technology to speed up the processing of undocumented migrants crossing the border and are using mobile processing so they can process migrants while being transported by bus or van, for example. They have pushed to digitize documents that were once hand-filled by Border Patrol. And they’ve beefed up contractor hiring so agents can stay in the field.

But critics have criticized the government and said it is not doing enough. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent U.S. senator from Arizona, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the administration was not communicating with local officials about things like what kind of surge to expect or whether buses would be available to transport migrants . And she said a decision to send 1,500 military troops to the border came too late.

In Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott said Monday he was sending “tactical” National Guard teams to the busiest crossings this week. Abbott, who has accused the Biden administration for years of not doing enough at the border, also said “many thousands more” migrants will be transported across the state to Democrat-run cities elsewhere in the US in the coming days.

“It shouldn’t have been,” Abbott said, speaking in Austin as members of the Guard boarded four C-130 cargo planes behind him.

In communities bordering Mexico, officials and community groups caring for newly arrived migrants are concerned about what the end of Title 42 means. Sister Norma Pimentel runs the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center, the largest shelter in South Texas.

The reception center mainly functions as an information center where migrants can buy tickets, call, eat and rest before traveling to their next destination, where they often have family or other contacts. But, Pimentel said, many of the Venezuelans in this latest wave have no connections in the US, making it more difficult for them to move to the next destination. “That’s going to be a problem for us,” she said.

The federal government is giving money to communities to help them cope with the increase in migrants. On Friday, the government announced that $332 million had been disbursed to 35 local governments and service organizations. Most go to communities close to the border “because of the urgency they face”, but cities far from the border also get money.

In the border town of El Paso, Texas, about 2,200 migrants are currently camping in the street or camping a few blocks from the main gateways connecting El Paso to the Mexican city of Juárez. The city is ready to open shelters next week if needed in two vacant school buildings and a public center.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser estimated there are about 10,000 to 12,000 migrants in Juárez waiting to cross as local officials prepare for the “unknown.” Leeser said migrants are flocking to the border under the false belief that it will be easier to access the US when Title 42 goes away, but there could be more dire consequences for many.

It’s a message that federal officials have repeated. But they compete with a powerful people-smuggling network that facilitates migration north and the desperation of migrants who feel they have no other choice.

At the Port of Entry in Brownsville, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say they have been holding drills to prepare for a wave of migrants trying to cross and forcing them to close the bridge. Pedestrians cross from Matamoros via a covered walkway that can only accommodate a few people. Concerned about the impact of long queues of migrants arriving at the port without an appointment after May 11 and the impact on port operations, they are urging people to schedule appointments through CBP One.


Gonzalez reported from McAllen, Texas. Associated Press writers Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, NM, and Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.


This story has been corrected to show that the Senator’s first name is Kyrsten, not Kristen.

‘Risk it all’: migration wave for which the US is preparing

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