Hundreds of US troops are set to begin a new mission along the southern border Wednesday as officials and a surge of migrants brace “for the unknown” after a Trump-era border restriction expires late Thursday.
“We are preparing for the unknown because we don’t know who’s coming – whether it’s families, whether it’s single adults,” El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said. The mayor visited the neighboring city of Juarez, Mexico, earlier Wednesday and estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 people were waiting to cross the border.
Laredo Mayor Victor Trevino told CNN Wednesday his southern Texas border city is preparing for the end of the pandemic-related restrictions as “if it’s a hurricane coming.” Laredo is expecting migrants to be transferred from overburdened processing centers in Brownsville and El Paso, Trevino said.
US Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz, however, downplayed the migrant surge, telling reporters Wednesday the increase after the lifting of Title 42 happened in the “last five to six days.”
Ortiz acknowledged an unprecedented level of migrants turning themselves in and the strain that put on the system, but said there will be no “free-for-all along the border.”
Still, some 550 troops, mostly from the Army, will support US Customs and Border Protection by monitoring the border and doing data entry and warehouse support, US Northern Command spokesperson John Cornelio said.
Another 950 troops, largely from the Marines and Army, will arrive by the end of the month, Cornelio said.
Immigration officials are already dealing with a surge of migrants, even before the expiration of Title 42, a 2020 policy that allowed US authorities to swiftly expel migrants encountered at the southern border, with some exceptions, ostensibly to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Federal authorities have warned that the policy’s expiration Thursday at 11:59 p.m. ET could further increase the number of migrants trying to cross into the US and intensify an already challenging humanitarian crisis at the southern border.
In pictures: The surge at the US-Mexico border
The latest border crisis has sent ripples across the country: Troops are being deployed to border cities overwhelmed with desperate migrants anticipating the end of Title 42; states and municipalities far away from the southern frontier brace for an influx of newcomers; and political tensions mount over a long broken immigration system facing one of its greatest challenges yet.
End of Title 42 does not signal ‘our border is open’
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday touted the “effectiveness” of the administration’s efforts to stem the flow of migration at the border and criticized Congress for failing to repair “a broken immigration system.” He also emphasized that the end of Title 42 “does not mean our border is open.”
“Even after nearly two years of preparation, we expect to see large numbers of encounters at our southern border in the days and weeks after May 11,” he said.
“This places an incredible strain on our personnel, our facilities and our communities, with whom we partner closely. Our plan will deliver results, but it will take time for those results to be fully realized, and it is essential that we all take this into account.”
The expiration of Title 42 does not signal an open border but rather “means tougher consequences (under Title 8) for people who crossed the border illegally,” said the secretary.
When Title 42 lifts, US officials will lean more on the decades-old Title 8, under which migrants could face more severe consequences for crossing the border unlawfully, such as being barred from entering the US for at least five years, they’ve said. Asylum-seekers who cross the border without first applying for asylum could be removed under Title 8 authority.
While Title 8 carries more legal consequences, especially for those caught a second time, processing times under that authority take longer than Title 42 expulsions and could strain already pinched resources.
Government ‘surging personnel to the border’
Mayorkas said the department is “surging personnel to the border,” including 1,400 DHS personnel, 1,000 processing coordinators and an additional 1,500 Department of Defense personnel.
Agents with US Secret Service and US Marshals Service, among other federal agencies, are expected to deploy to help border authorities, two Homeland Security officials told CNN.
Crowds of migrants released on humanitarian parole gathered outside the offices of the non-profit Team Brownsville in Texas on Wednesday. They included migrants from China, Venezuela, and Central American countries who clutched blue bags with belongings and manila envelopes with immigration documents.
Team Brownsville processed 844 migrants on Tuesday, including 30 children, and is operating at capacity, according to volunteer coordinator Andrea Rudnik. The non-profit has been receiving 800 to 1,000 asylum seekers a day over the last two weeks, she said.
“We need to find space and be prepared to have enough water, food, and other kinds of things that people need when they get here,” she said.
A Venezuelan migrant told CNN Wednesday he arrived with his family in Brownsville nearly one week ago and lost track of them while being processed by immigration authorities.
The migrant, who asked that only his first name be used – William – said he was separated from his wife and two children and has not been able to locate them.
William said the end of the pandemic-era immigration restrictions is the reason “why I came now” to the US border.
About 155,000 migrants are estimated to be in shelters and on streets across northern Mexican states bordering the US, according to a source familiar with federal estimates.
Nearly 1,000 migrants turn themselves in
Federal agents reacting to a steep increase of migrants in El Paso over the past week leaned on migrants there Tuesday to turn themselves in to immigration authorities.
Agents handed out flyers to those who’d been living on sidewalks outside a church to ask them to visit a Customs and Border Protection enforcement center for processing. The flyers informed recipients they’d be “processed by CBP officers and placed on the correct immigration path.”
More than 900 migrants turned themselves in to immigration authorities since those flyers went out, according to Anthony “Scott” Good, the US Border Patrol’s El Paso sector chief.
Most of those people were issued notices to appear and some are still being processed, Good said.
Some migrants outside the church were too scared to surrender to authorities and confused about what would happen next, they told CNN.
“We’ve heard we’re going to be deported – that our papers are no good,” said Nelson Pirela, a migrant from Venezuela. “We heard immigration is coming and that we have to turn ourselves in.”
Many heading to the US are making long and dangerous treks in hopes of finding a better, safer life for their families. People immigrate to flee violence, for economic opportunities or to reunite with family members, experts say.
“Like many others, we are looking for a better way of life. We’re looking for safety to go out in the streets,” migrant Marcela Aguilar told CNN affiliate KGTV in San Diego.
Biden warns of chaos to come
As the Title 42 expiration looms, US officials said they’re prepared for what’s to come.
Officials are working closely with humanitarian nongovernmental organizations that support migrants and expanded transportation contracts, a senior Biden administration official said.
“We have been moving some individuals laterally along the border to other parts of the border where there is more capacity,” the official said.
Still, President Joe Biden on Tuesday acknowledged the policy’s expiration and the migrant surge expected to follow are “going to be chaotic for a while.”
The administration is working to set up regional processing centers in countries migrants traverse on their way to the US southern border so they can apply there to come to the US, the president said. It’s unclear when those centers will be running.
States and cities have also been preparing for the expected surge: Officials in Brownsville, Texas, are talking with bus operators and airlines about increasing outbound services and with nongovernmental organizations about expanding space for migrants.
In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul issued an executive order Tuesday allowing cities and the state to tap into more resources ahead of Title 42’s expiration. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued an emergency declaration, saying the city’s resources are now stretched to “the breaking point” and existing facilities are full.
As New York grapples with a surge in migrant arrivals, Orangetown, in Rockland County, was granted a temporary restraining order Tuesday to keep a hotel in the town from accepting 30 migrant men that the New York mayor’s office planned to send Wednesday, Town Supervisor Teresa Kenny announced.
Rockland County officials in recent days have criticized New York Mayor Eric Adams for not informing them about the city’s plans to bus migrants to that county. Sending willing migrants to hotels outside New York City is part of what Adams called a “decompression strategy” as city shelter space runs out and migrant arrivals increase.
On Wednesday, county officials said a court had issued a temporary restraining order against a plan to house migrants at a hotel in the hamlet of Orangeburg. Rockland is also seeking a restraining order against the city, saying it lacks authority to establish a shelter outside of its boundaries.
The New York City Law Department declined to comment on the lawsuit. CNN has reached out to the New York mayor’s office.
CNN’s Rosa Flores, Gloria Pazmino and Norma Galeana reported from El Paso, Texas, while Nouran Salahieh and Ray Sanchez reported and wrote in Los Angeles and New York. CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez, Zachery Cohen, Steve Contorno, Oren Liebermann, Haley Britzky, Nick Valencia, Jason Morris and DJ Judd contributed to this report.