As a Trump-era migration policy remains in limbo, so are the lives of thousands of migrants waiting across the United States border, many sleeping out in the cold in encampments or overcrowded shelters, hoping to cross to request asylum.
In Matamoros, Mexico, near the US border across from Brownsville on the southern tip of Texas, migrants – mostly Venezuelans and Haitians – are living in a large encampment, with tarp-covered tents and clotheslines stretching between them. Some families have been waiting there for weeks.
Migrants who spoke to CNN by phone and in person describe the conditions in the camp as dire. They are sleeping under tents and don’t know where their next meal will come from. Temperatures are expected to dip below freezing in the next few days.
Many, including mothers and sick children, are living on the streets, in abandoned homes and on sidewalks as they wait. “They feel desperate,” said Glady Edith Cañas, director of the non-profit Ayudándoles a Triunfar.
At the heart of their limbo: Some migrants have been waiting for the end of the public health border policy known as Title 42. The 2020 policy, which officials said was an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, allows authorities to swiftly expel migrants encountered at the southern border, with some exceptions.
The Title 42 policy was set to end Wednesday, but Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on Monday put a temporary hold on its termination. Until the court issues an order – which can come at any time – the authority will remain in place; the Biden administration is asking the court to let the policy end next week.
Officials have predicted lifting Title 42 will result in a spike in the number of migrants trying to cross into the US, and border cities have been bracing for a flood of people.
Now, because the end of Title 42 is delayed, uncertainty looms over those waiting at the border.
Some migrants are not waiting
CNN drone pilot Al Meshberg captured video of a large group of migrants gathered on the Mexican banks of the Rio Grande and a large law enforcement presence of US Border Patrol, Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard on the US side.
As CNN cameras rolled, a group of migrants, including small children, crossed the river on a raft. Moments after the migrants crossed into the United States, the migrants could be seen walking out of the bushes wrapped in synthetic blankets while being escorted to Border Patrol vehicles.
This week at Matamoros, some used inflatable rafts to cross the Rio Grande, pulling themselves over on a rope attached to the US side. In a video of a crossing there obtained by CNN, some are heard saying they were tired of waiting.
Meanwhile, at the westernmost edge of Texas this week, some 800 miles northwest of Matamoros, National Guard troops and state police lined one side of the Rio Grande at El Paso, and armed members of the Mexican army line some parts of the other side at Ciudad Juárez.
There, after crossing the river – wading through discarded belongings of those who came before them – migrants have in recent days lined up for hours near the border wall to turn themselves in to US Border Patrol agents.
As the sun set, some lit fires to keep warm or wrapped themselves in blankets and stayed in line.
Early Tuesday, National Guard members and state troopers put up barbed wire, blocking a common crossing used by thousands of migrants over the past several weeks. Four people were taken into custody after they tried to crawl under the barbed wire, video showed.
Migrants hoping to cross were told Wednesday morning to go to a point about a mile down the river. There, once again, they lined up outside the border wall on the US side to present themselves for asylum requests.
Elsewhere on the US side, shelters are packed, and still, not everyone is sheltered. A crowd of migrants could be seen sleeping on the ground outside a bus station Sunday in El Paso.
And the region will get dangerously cold Friday night and Saturday morning: Wind chills could reach 15 degrees early Saturday in El Paso, and the upper 20s in the Brownsville area.
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of emergency Saturday, due to a surge of migrants who have recently arrived in the community and are living in what he described as unsafe conditions.
The mayor said Monday he heard more than 20,000 migrants were on the Mexican side of the border, waiting for Title 42 to be lifted.
Drone footage showed a large crowd of migrants lining up near the border in El Paso on Tuesday, with families and small children waiting near barbed wiring and Texas National Guard troops.
Across the Rio Grande, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, has also seen an uptick in arrivals in recent weeks, according to Mayor Perez Cuellar. “This is a city of migrants,” he told CNN.
Thousands also were waiting for Title 42 to be lifted in Reynosa, a Mexican city across the border from the Rio Grande Valley, including 4,000 who, as of Sunday, were staying in two shelters and an estimated 4,000 in other encampments and the surrounding areas, according to Pastor Hector Silva.
He watched his mother fall off a cliff on their journey. He’s one of thousands seeking a new home in the US
Migrants who make it to the border often undergo arduous journeys to get there.
One migrant, who identified himself as Brian, told CNN in Spanish he and his mother left Venezuela three months ago full of dreams of a life in the US. Only he made it to South Texas.
The mother and son were traveling through the infamous Darien Gap, a dangerous 37-mile stretch of jungle through which migrants cross from Colombia to Panama.
Brian said he was helping his mother cross when she grabbed a branch and then fell down a cliff and into a river.
Now on his way to New York, Brian said he’ll never forget the look in his mother’s eyes as she fell.
US border officials have been bracing for an influx
In pictures: El Paso sees surge in border crossings
If Title 42 is lifted, the way migrants are processed at the border would go back to how it was before 2020. Under that system, migrants are either removed from the country, detained or released into the US while their cases make their way through immigration court.
The Department of Homeland Security projected last month that between 9,000 to 14,000 migrants may attempt to cross the US southern border daily when Title 42 ends, more than double the number of people crossing at the time.
Crossings are already rising in some areas.
In the last two weeks, border authorities in the Rio Grande Valley at Texas’ southern tip encountered between 900 and 1,200 migrants daily, a federal law enforcement source told CNN. That’s reminiscent of a surge in 2019, when agents encountered at least 1,000 daily, the source said.
And a senior Border Patrol official said last week more than 2,400 migrants crossed into the US near El Paso daily over the weekend, describing the number as a “major surge in illegal crossings” in the area.
Meanwhile, housing the arriving migrants has presented a challenge.
“I really believe that today our asylum-seekers are not safe as we have hundreds and hundreds on the streets and that’s not the way we want to treat people,” El Paso’s mayor said Saturday.
Two vacant schools in El Paso will be used as temporary sheltering facilities for migrants, city authorities announced Tuesday, in addition to three emergency shelter hotels.
The city is also sending teams to the different areas where migrants are gathering to provide transportation services and temporary shelter.
“All eyes are on El Paso and for this reason, we must show the world the compassion our community is known for and illustrate the resilience and strength of our region,” City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said in a statement.
The American Red Cross has deployed resources and personnel to El Paso to assist with the influx of migrants, the organization said in a Wednesday statement. The organization has provided phones to organizations working in the region so migrants can reconnect with family members.
Title 42 frozen, but plans still underway
The Department of Homeland Security last week released a plan for the scheduled end of Title 42. It involved surging resources to the border – including hiring nearly 1,000 Border Patrol processing coordinators – and increasing transportation resources, such as flights and buses.
Despite the freeze on ending the policy, US authorities are moving forward with planning.
“We’re going on as if nothing’s changed,” a senior US Customs and Border Protection official told CNN, adding policy discussions are still underway to provide other legal pathways to Nicaraguans, Haitians and Cubans who make up a large number of encounters.
As for what happens on Wednesday if the expiration is still on hold, one official said there may be a “mini surge.”
“I think there’s some that probably haven’t gotten the message and won’t until they cross,” the official said. “There are some already committed who will cross.”
CNN’s Rosa Flores, Jason Hanna, David Culver, Catherine E. Shoichet, Priscilla Alvarez, Ed Lavandera, Gene Norman, Julia Vargas Jones, Raphael Rodriguez, Al Meshberg and Michael Humphrey contributed to this report.