Two days before officials lifted the Title 42 pandemic restrictions on the southern border, President Biden made a stark assessment of his administration’s ability to handle the surge of immigrants expected to arrive last week.
“It’s going to be chaotic for a while,” Biden predicted grimly.
When the time came, what Republicans had insisted would be the end of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s career did not quite turn into the chaos Biden and others had anticipated.
An initial surge of about 10,000 migrants just hours before the rule expired Thursday put new strain on already full detention centers and shelters, and scenes of migrants, some with no place to sleep other than a sidewalk, they underscored the searing reality of broken immigration. system.
But that was followed by a marked slowdown in migration across the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
“America can handle this moment, and we know how to do it in an orderly and fair way that reflects our values, interests and the rule of law,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, a liberal pro-immigration group in Washington.
Still, he said the Biden administration should not “buy the Republicans’ view that this is a perpetual crisis that requires perpetual compliance-only policies.”
The end of Title 42 after three years was a reminder, as if anyone at the border needed one, of the vulnerabilities of the nation’s immigration system, which is already well beyond its capacity to deal with the number of migrants who fleeing their homes and to determine who can stay and who should be deported.
But the weekend also underscored the ability of federal authorities, local governments and private non-profit organizations to temporarily assess the situation.
The administration sent 1,500 troops to the border to help free more Border Patrol agents. Cities declared emergencies and opened additional shelters for migrants who needed a place to sleep. Churches and other nonprofit groups received grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bolster their relief efforts. Border officials built temporary detention facilities.
The administration also imposed tough new restrictions on who qualifies for asylum, a policy that has sparked fierce attacks and legal challenges from human rights groups. And officials increased opportunities for immigrants to enter the country legally, using a mobile phone app to schedule interviews with an asylum officer.
What followed was a quieter-than-expected weekend in Texas, Arizona, California and nearby Mexican cities.
At Gate 42 of the border wall with El Paso, the number of migrants arriving has decreased since Friday. On Sunday morning, the local media reportedonly about 20 people were waiting to turn themselves in. However, state and federal authorities, including immigration and military officials, have intensified operations in Samalayuca, about 30 miles south of Ciudad Juárez, to reduce “risks to the migrant population,” they wrote in a statement.
The sprawling migrant camp trapped between walls on the San Diego-Tijuana border has also emptied in recent days, when Customs and Border Protection officers begin processing the people waiting there. Gone are garbage bags and abandoned belongings. On Friday, Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero told reporters that authorities had not reported “serious incidents.”
In Tamaulipas, the scenes of chaos that drove many desperate families to cross the Rio Grande have mostly disappeared. In Matamoros, two Red Cross officials estimated that the crossings had continued in an orderly manner. About 200 people showed up at points of entry seeking asylum, only a quarter of whom had not previously scheduled an appointment through the CBP One app, officials said in an interview.
Miguel González Ponce, a local pastor who helps shelter migrants in Ciudad Juárez, confirmed in an interview that shelters across the city had only about 1,400 people.
“Contrary to what was expected, the migrants are not arriving en masse,” he said.
Administration officials said its new border policies and additional resources contributed to the lack of chaos.
“We’ve been planning this transition for months and months,” Mayorkas said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. And he added: “It is too soon. But the numbers that we have experienced in the last two days are noticeably below what they were before the end of Title 42.”
Mr. Biden’s prediction of disorder may have helped the administration manage expectations in the run-up to the lifting of Title 42, especially with television cameras streaming live from the border all weekend.
Several thousand migrants who crossed on Saturday and Sunday, what would have been considered a large number in normal times, seemed disappointing compared to the possibility of prolonged chaos.
But few people in the Biden administration are celebrating what appears to be a moment of calm amid an ongoing storm.
“It’s still early days,” Blas Nuñez-Neto, undersecretary for border policy and immigration at the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters Monday.
Conditions in countries that have led to record numbers of people fleeing have not changed, Núñez-Neto said. And smugglers who have profited from migrants fleeing to the United States are expected to adapt their money-raising strategies to accommodate the new policies in place, he said.
“They will look for any opportunity to make a profit at the expense of vulnerable people,” he added.
The border remains one of the government’s toughest problems, in part because the United States is at the center of a global shift in migration caused by economic and political decline in many countries in South and Central America. Helping rebuild civil societies in those nations, which the administration has tried to do, may help reduce the number of migrants, but it is a long-term goal with many hurdles.
Dealing with the border has also become one of the most polarizing political issues in the country, a situation that for decades has prevented Congress from reaching meaningful agreement on how to make the system more efficient and fair.
Since seizing control of the House of Representatives earlier this year, Republicans have targeted Mayorkas, with some saying they intended to build a case for his impeachment.
The situation along the border since Title 42 was lifted Thursday did not provide obvious impetus for that case. But that did not seem to stop the campaign of criticism directed at the secretary. The Republican National Committee accused him of refusing to admit the extent of the problems at the border.
“Mayorkas Reaches New Levels of Border Crisis Denial” was the subject of an email from the committee Friday after restrictions were lifted.
“Unacceptable,” the email read. “The only way your ‘plan’ works is if the plan is in chaos. Mayorkas should resign.”
Mayorkas and White House officials have dismissed the Republican threats of impeachment as little more than political theater. But they have been furious at what they call Republican efforts to “sabotage” the situation at the border through legal action.
Just hours before Title 42 was set to expire, a federal judge at the request of Florida’s attorney general blocked the administration’s plan to release some immigrants from severely overcrowded border facilities without an immigration court date. Officials described it as an emergency measure used by previous administrations to save time and prevent dangerous consequences from overcrowding at their facilities.
Following the judge’s order, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre lashed out at Republicans.
“Even before Title 42 was lifted, the Florida attorney general filed a lawsuit to sabotage our effort to manage the border humanely and effectively,” he said. “And that’s what we’ve been seeing from Republican officials over and over again over the past few months.”
But the political debate in Washington could still change suddenly, depending on what happens along the border in the coming days.
“We are on Day 3,” Mayorkas said on Sunday.
eileen sullivan contributed reporting from Washington, and Emiliano Rodriguez Mega From Mexico City.