As the 3-year-old pandemic-era immigration law known as Title 42 lifts today, President Joe Biden cautioned that the southern border would be “chaotic for a while.” But the chaos has already arrived.
The border is now at an inflexion point, more than two years after Biden initiated a legal battle to end Title 42, a law that has kept thousands of migrants out of the country. Despite having three months of lead time into Title 42’s expiration, the Biden administration has faced criticism from its own party for a perceived lack of preparation. Nevertheless, the administration doubled down on its plan to solve the complex border crisis.
“We expect to see large numbers of encounters at our southern border in the days and weeks after May 11,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Wednesday. “Our plan will deliver results, but it will take time for them to be fully realised. And it is essential that we all take this into account.”
The chaos has already manifested itself, as hundreds of migrants turned themselves in for immigration processing in El Paso, Texas after learning federal authorities would begin “targeted enforcement” to round them up. States have been taking matters into their own hands, using a combination of militaristic and humanitarian methods to address the crisis. Meanwhile, the first waves of a group of 1,500 military service members with the Army and Marines arrived on Wednesday.
Migrant families without proper documents have been sleeping on cardboard and under makeshift lean-tos, unable to travel. Record numbers of Cuban, Venezuelan, and Central American migrants are crossing the border illegally. All the while, the governor of Texas has been mobilizing a tactical border force to intercept migrants.
Migrants camp out in front of Opportunity Center for the Homeless in El Paso, Texas. Photo: Paul Ratje/Bloomberg
“I travel to Arizona and west Texas, and recently have been to south Texas,” said Tony Payan, a professor at Rice University in Houston. “Wherever I go, migrants just keep going, and I think the Biden administration just doesn’t know what to do.”
El Paso faces confusion as ‘targeted enforcement’ threatens migrants
In El Paso, a city that has been a haven for migrants long before the formal expiration of Title 42, migrants were navigating a threat of “targeted enforcement” from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As of Monday, more than 3,300 migrants, many of whom crossed the U.S. border illegally, had set up camp around a Catholic church in the downtown area and on the sidewalks outside a homeless shelter. There were hundreds of men traveling alone but also many families living on the trash-strewn streets.
The federal enforcement operation had been scheduled to start on Tuesday, immigration authorities said, but refugee advocates were confused about what was actually happening. By Wednesday, hundreds had turned themselves into authorities, but advocates were uncertain if migrants would be afforded their legal right to seek asylum or summarily removed.
“The message keeps changing,” said Mark Seitz, bishop for the Catholic Diocese of El Paso. He pointed to an official communique from U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Monday night warning about expulsion and removal. By Tuesday morning, plainclothes officers were handing out a flyer that “just basically said, ‘You can go turn yourself in at the bridge.’ There were no assurances there either.”
Seitz spent the morning counselling migrants around one of his churches but wasn’t sure what to tell them. He said he didn’t want to make promises the U.S. government might not keep.
Not stopping anytime soon
The ongoing chaos at the southern border has raised questions about the Biden administration’s readiness to handle the expiration of Title 42, a pandemic-era immigration law. The law has kept thousands of migrants out of the country, but its expiration has raised concerns about a surge in illegal immigration.
In El Paso, Texas, more than 3,300 migrants, including many families, have set up camp around a Catholic church and on the sidewalks outside a homeless shelter. The threat of “targeted enforcement” from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has caused confusion among refugee advocates about the legal rights of migrants.
Meanwhile, governors in Arizona and Texas are taking their own steps to address the situation. Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, has established five new bus routes to transport migrants from small border communities to Tucson to avoid street releases. Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls said border crossings had more than tripled over the course of a month.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas has directed a new National Guard unit called a tactical border force to load up Blackhawk helicopters and military transport aircraft ahead of the expiration of Title 42. National Guard troops have also been installing barbed wire along popular entry points. Abbott said the force would “bolster Operation Lone Star to secure the Texas border amidst the chaos caused by Joe Biden eliminating Title 42.”
Pentagon Deploying Troops to Monitor Southern Border
The militarization of the border is a trend that has been ongoing for decades, with the latest deployment of 1,500 service members with the Army and Marines arriving at the border on Wednesday, according to observers. These service members are tasked with various duties, from assisting with data entry to monitoring portions of the border to alert Customs and Border Patrol. While the move is seen as a short-term solution, observers would rather see more staff for agencies like the Department of Homeland Security.
US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks on Friday in Brownsville, Texas, about immigration and the expiration of Title 42. Photo: Michael Gonzalez/Getty Images
The White House has said that Republican members of Congress voted to defund border patrol agents and wouldn’t approve Biden’s 2021 and 2022 requests for “record funding” for agents. Janet Murguía, president and CEO at UnidosUS, a Latino nonprofit advocacy organization, suggested that the crisis requires a humanitarian response, proposing to send more lawyers, adjudicators, and case managers to the border.
Observers note that sending troops to the border is a strategy that the Biden administration criticized former President Donald Trump’s administration for. Another Trump-era strategy was summarily sending asylum-seekers back to Mexico. Tony Payan, a professor from Houston, suggested that the Biden administration was caught without a plan and resorted to a Trumpian-style strategy.