End of Title 42 immigration policy brought fewer migrants than expected, but communities are still on high alert

Migrants seeking asylum in the US look through the border wall as volunteers offer assistance on the other side on Saturday in San Diego.
CNN  — 

The expiration of a Covid-related border restriction policy known as Title 42 has so far brought fewer migrant arrivals than expected, but southern border communities still worry about overcrowded migrant processing and detention facilities.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Sunday the number of migrants at the US southern border “are markedly down over what they were prior to the end of Title 42.”

Title 42, a controversial Trump-era policy from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, allowed authorities to swiftly turn away migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border. The policy ended Thursday night along with the national coronavirus public health emergency.

The mayor of Laredo, Texas, told CNN’s Jim Acosta that even though the number of people coming in may be lower than what federal officials were bracing for, his community is still on “high alert.”

“The unfortunate reality is that we were already at near capacity in our hospitals before Title 42 expired and without a pediatric intensive care unit,” Mayor Victor Treviño, who is a physician, said. “We wouldn’t be able to care for some of the arriving children and family groups.”

His community received about 700 migrants on Saturday, the mayor said.

“We’re still on high alert because Brownsville and El Paso still have a high number there with them so we have to be cognizant of that,” he added.

Officials had warned the end of Title 42 could result in a migrant surge that would exacerbate an already challenging humanitarian crisis at the southern border. Federal and local authorities prepared for an influx, with thousands of personnel from federal agencies dispatched to the border to support local authorities.

Authorities had projected migrant encounters to surge to an average of 2,000-14,000 a day, said one official, Matthew J. Hudak, deputy chief of the US Border Patrol.

“It’s not the numbers we initially expected, and we hope it keeps that way,” said Mayor Javier Villalobos of McAllen, which sits along the US-Mexico border in South Texas.

In El Paso – which has seen hundreds of migrants sleeping on sidewalks after a recent spike in arrivals – Mayor Oscar Leeser said the city has so far seen a “smooth transition” out of Title 42 but is still preparing for what the future may hold.

“We know that we still need to prepare for the unknown because we don’t know what’s going to happen next week and continue to happen day in and day out,” Lesser said.

His community is currently getting the resources it needs from the state and federal government, he said on “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“We all know the immigration process is broken, there’s no ifs and buts about it, but we are getting the resources that we need because our city and the southern border couldn’t do it without federal aid,” Leeser said.

While border officials did not see a substantial influx of migrants Friday, US authorities warn that detention facilities could still become dangerously overcrowded. As of Friday afternoon, about 23,400 migrants were in Border Patrol custody, slightly lower than earlier in the week, according to a Homeland Security official.

What the migrants say

Many who head to the US make long and dangerous journeys in hopes of finding better, safer lives. Experts say migrants could be fleeing violence, immigrating for economic opportunities or to reunite with family members.

Thousands of migrants for weeks took refuge around El Paso’s Sacred Heart Church ahead of the expiration of Title 42. Father Rafael Garcia, the pastor at the church, said the numbers of migrants have dwindled in the past few days.

“The numbers have really gone down,” Garcia told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Saturday. “I don’t have answers, but the fact is around our church and even within our shelter, our numbers have gone down and we’re taking it day by day. “

The majority of migrants his church has encountered recently had traveled from Venezuela, where some described struggling to survive on the equivalent of $5 to $10 a month, the pastor said.

“It’s not an easy decision for them to come, but they all believe they cannot survive back home,” he added. “Their desire, typically from everybody, they say ‘I want to work. I want to be able to start a new life. I want to send money back to family still in Venezuela.’ That’s pretty much the common theme.”

Migrants arriving at the El Paso church also describe a dangerous journey to get there, Garcia said.

“Some have been kidnapped, some have been harassed in different ways,” he said.

Those arriving at his church include injured people who need emergency care, Garcia said, as well as pregnant mothers in their third trimester of pregnancy, who have made the arduous trek through Mexico for a chance to immigrate to the US.

“It’s a real crisis. It’s a real human crisis,” he said.

“To do this, it must be a real serious need to say, ‘I have to leave my country. I can no longer be there,’” the pastor said. “That has to be taken into account.”

Those who make it to a border checkpoint arrive not knowing whether they will qualify for asylum or be sent back to Mexico or their home countries.

What happens next

With Title 42 now expired, US authorities are leaning more on Title 8, a decades-old protocol for asylum seekers which could carry lengthier processing times and more severe consequences for those crossing unlawfully.

The federal plan was dealt a setback Thursday when a federal judge in Florida temporarily blocked the Biden administration from releasing migrants from Border Patrol without court notices. The ruling impedes a key administration tool for managing the number of migrants in US custody.

Hudak warned in the filing that without measures to conditionally release some migrants, Border Patrol could have over 45,000 migrants in custody by the end of the month.

“Noncitizens held in overcrowded facilities are not only vulnerable to communicable diseases, but this vulnerability is likely to be compounded by some aspects of the noncitizens’ journey including poor health and nutrition, lack of access to health care, and/or inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene services while migrating to the Southwest border,” the filing says.

CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez, Paradise Afshar, Elizabeth Wolfe, Ray Sanchez and Homero De la Fuente contributed to this report.