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A major US asylum restriction is ending. So why is the humanitarian crisis in northern Mexico getting worse?

‘The end of Title 42 is not going to change anything. The names of the policies will just change. If it’s not Title 42, it will be Title 8.’

Wide-shot picture of make-shift tents in Matamoros, Mexico. Eric Reidy/TNH
Around 1,000 asylum seekers and migrants were living in this makeshift encampment in Matamoros, Mexico on the banks of the Rio Grande, which forms the border with the United States, at the end of March. The population has since ballooned to over 2,000.

A pandemic-era public health order that has limited asylum access at the US-Mexico border since March 2020 is set to expire on 11 May. But instead of bringing relief, the end of Title 42 looks poised to add confusion and pressure to an already difficult humanitarian situation. 

 

US government officials, aid workers, and rights activists are all expecting a dramatic increase in the number of people heading to the border, but preparations to manage the uptick appear few and far between.

 

“When they say that Title 42 will be lifted on this day, a lot of people will head to the border and ultimately understand once they get here that, no, it was not that [the Americans] were opening their doors,” Juan Fierro García, a pastor who runs a shelter in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, told The New Humanitarian.

 

Already this year, nearly 100,000 people have crossed the Darién Gap, a treacherous stretch of roadless jungle between Colombia and Panama that many asylum seekers and migrants traverse en route to the US southern border – a sixfold increase compared to last year.

 

Read more: ‘The Invisibles’: A Cuban asylum seeker’s dangerous odyssey 

 

US President Joe Biden has proposed new measures aimed at keeping some form of asylum restriction in place when Title 42 ends – these will likely cause most of those people arriving at the border to end up stuck in northern Mexico. The moves are also creating confusion and anxiety for tens of thousands who are already waiting along the border, including many Venezuelans, Haitians, Colombians, Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and others.

 

“Everyone in here has that uncertainty of, ‘Okay, [Title 42] is ending, so what now?’” Elba Lobo, a 33-year-old Venezuelan asylum seeker told The New Humanitarian in early April at a shelter run by the Mexican federal government in Ciudad Juárez. 

 

Dozens of shelters in northern Mexican border cities – several of which The New Humanitarian visited in late March and early April – are already severely overcrowded. Hundreds – if not thousands – of people are sleeping rough in the streets. In Matamoros and Reynosa in the eastern state of Tamaulipas, thousands are living in makeshift encampments in tents made of tree branches, blankets, tarps, and plastic garbage bags with limited access to bathrooms, showers, and food.

 

The aid response from UN agencies and international NGOs appears to be lagging far behind the scale of the needs, with most relief work being done by local NGOs, volunteers, and churches that are struggling to keep pace.

 

The facility in Ciudad Juárez where a fire killed 40 people on 27 March.
Eric Reidy/TNH
On 27 March, 40 people died in a fire at this facility run by Mexico's National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juárez. Before the blaze, authorities had started taking a harder line on asylum seekers and migrants stranded in the city by US policies.

 

Tensions are running high in Ciudad Juárez after a fire on 27 March killed 40 people detained in a facility run by Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM). Fires also broke out on 19 and 20 April at the camp in Matamoros – where around 2,000 people are living – burning about two dozen tents. No one was severely injured, but the fires were reportedly set intentionally. 

 

Asylum seekers and migrants The New Humanitarian spoke to described experiencing violence and exploitation from cartels and from Mexican authorities. 

 

“It’s not inevitable that we can’t deal with this,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the HOPE Border Institute, a grassroots aid and advocacy organisation working in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, referring to the challenge posed by the end of Title 42. “But [the Biden administration] had two and half years to get ready, and I don’t think we’re any more prepared than we were two and a half years ago.”

 

Ending Title 42

Since it was first introduced by the Trump administration, the United States has carried out more than 2.6 million expulsions under Title 42, which allows people who enter irregularly to be rapidly removed without being able to apply for asylum. Critics say the policy uses the pandemic as a pretext to curtail asylum access and has helped fuel a humanitarian crisis in northern Mexico. 

 

Even after it ends, migration rights advocates and aid workers are expecting Title 42’s legacy “to be with us for a while”, said Corbett. “What that means is the chipping away of asylum at the border… It means turning Mexico into a staging ground for [irregular] migration.”

 

Biden entered office in 2021 vowing to reverse much of his predecessor’s harsh policy legacy on migration, but soon backed away from pilot efforts to unwind Title 42 as the number of asylum seekers and migrants coming to the border rose to record levels that summer. Later attempts to end the policy in May and December 2022 were met with court challenges.

Title 42 is only poised to finally end because the US public health emergency declaration for the COVID-19 pandemic – which it is based on – expires on 11 May. 

 

Since Biden took office, Human Rights First, a US-based advocacy organisation, has documented more than 13,480 reports of murder, torture, kidnapping, rape, and other violent attacks against asylum seekers and migrants expelled from the United States under Title 42 or stranded in northern Mexico. 

 

Read more: Water in the desert: Inside the effort to prevent migrant deaths at the US-Mexico border

 

Human rights advocates and aid workers say Title 42 has also pushed asylum seekers and migrants to try to enter the United States in more remote and treacherous locations where they would be less likely to be apprehended and expelled. This, they argue, has contributed to a rise in the number of people dying of exposure in the desert or getting swept away by swift currents in the Rio Grande, which runs along much of the border.

 

The 850 recoveries of remains of people who died crossing the border in fiscal year 2022 (which starts in October) shattered the previous high of 546 in fiscal year 2021. 

 

New restrictions

“[The end of Title 42] is not going to change anything,” said García, the pastor running the shelter in Ciudad Juárez, echoing a common sentiment by aid workers and rights advocates. “The names [of the policies] will [just] change. If it’s not Title 42, it will be Title 8.”

 

García was referring to a section of the US Immigration and Nationality Act that allows for people who enter irregularly to be rapidly removed, unless they declare they want to seek asylum. Ahead of Title 42 ending, the Biden administration announced it would scale up the use of Title 8 and ban people removed under the provision from returning for five years, while imposing criminal penalties on those caught re-entering.

 

The administration has also proposed new emergency measures that rights groups say will extend limits on asylum access. If implemented, the measures would allow the United States to continue to expel most asylum seekers unless they had applied for protection in another country they passed through en route to the border or had already attempted to get an appointment to seek asylum through a port of entry.

 

“The United States is very good at launching policies or strategies that appear to do good, but the only intention of them is deterrence, and this is one of them.”

 

The idea of applying for protection in Mexico, Guatemala, or other Central American countries is a non-starter for many asylum seekers The New Humanitarian spoke to. “Mexico is just not a safe country,” a 34-year-old Venezuelan asylum seeker in Ciudad Juárez, who declined to give his name, said bluntly. 

 

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has launched a cell phone application called CBP One to manage the process of assigning asylum appointments at ports of entry. Since people started being able to use the app in January, more than 75,000 have received appointments. But the app has also been plagued by glitches, and the limited number of appointments available – around 740 per day – is another reason people have backed up in northern Mexico.

 

Some people working with asylum seekers said the app was an improvement because at least there was a process to legally enter the United States. But others said it was a sleight of hand, giving the US government something positive it could point to while putting in place a system that actually limited protections and forced people to live in dangerous conditions in northern Mexico. 

 

“The United States is very good at launching policies or strategies that appear to do good, but the only intention of them is deterrence, and this is one of them,” said Fernando García, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR) in El Paso.

 

The Biden administration has also launched a programme that allows up to 30,000 people per month from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Venezuela to come to the United States legally. The programme is intended to open up legal migration routes while also deterring people from coming to the border. To be considered, people must have a financial sponsor in the US, and anyone who has entered the US, Mexico, or Panama irregularly since it was launched is ineligible to apply.

 

Confusion, frustration, desperation

As a sign of what might be in store when Title 42 expires, when the policy was scheduled to end last December, thousands of people crossed from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso. Shelter capacity in the city was quickly outstripped, and hundreds – if not thousands – of people ended up sleeping rough on the streets for weeks until Border Patrol detained them. 

 

“We didn’t have the capacity, and for the first time that I can remember, we had people on the streets,” said Corbett.

 

Left: Luis, a 23-year-old Venezuelan asylum seeker, in Cuidad Juárez, Mexico across the Rio Grande from the heavily fortified US border. Right:A banner hung on the fence outside the Mexican immigration facility in Ciudad Juárez where 40 people died in a fire on 27 March reading: 'No person is illegal'.

 

The Biden administration has said it is increasing funding available to border cities and coordinating with organisations in the region to make sure shelter capacity, food, and other forms of assistance are in place to meet the expected increase in people crossing.

 

That effort, however, is not apparent on the ground. “Just like I didn’t see anything in October, November, [or] December [in terms of] the federal government preparing, I’m not seeing any preparations being done now,” Corbett said. 

 

For him, the lack of preparation seems intentional. 

 

“By not acting, they are going to be putting into place these emergency measures, which will ultimately be normalised,” Corbett added, referring to the Biden administration’s proposed asylum restrictions.

 

“They are definitely going to be exposed to a lot more risk and danger. People die in the desert and in the river. We are going to see a great increase in the number of kidnappings, disappearances, rapes, and abuses.”

 

The result will be a system of diminished protections at the border and increased confusion, frustration, and desperation on the part of asylum seekers and migrants, according to pastors and local aid workers in northern Mexico. 

 

Some local aid workers The New Humanitarian spoke to said that asylum seekers – fed up with CBP One and spurred on by misinformation – may try to enter the United States en masse. One such attempt to cross the international bridge connecting Ciudad Juárez and El Paso already occurred last month. And on 19 April, around 200 asylum seekers and migrants blocked traffic for about two hours on the international bridge connecting Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas. 

 

The other possibility is that more people will try to enter the United States irregularly, not realising that new asylum restrictions may result in them being expelled.

 

“If [people] are not able to legally seek asylum into the United States, then the only resources that they are going to have to try to get there would be to hire the cartel,” Juan Fernando Villarreal Lopez, a lawyer working with Resource Center Matamoros, a legal support group, told The New Humanitarian. 

 

“They are definitely going to be exposed to a lot more risk and danger… People die in the desert [and] in the river,” he said. “We are going to see a great increase in the number of kidnappings, disappearances, rapes, and abuses.”

 

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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