A series of tough new border policies have sharply reduced the number of migrants crossing into the United States to their lowest levels since President Biden took office, but the measures have created a combustible bottleneck along Mexico’s northern border, with tens of thousands of frustrated migrants languishing in overcrowded shelters from Tijuana to Reynosa.
The situation exploded on Monday when a protest at a government-run migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez led to a fire that killed at least 40 people. But scenes of overcrowding and desperation have been unfolding in recent weeks along the length of the border as the Biden administration prepares for yet another surge in migration this spring.
Migrants have been waiting in anticipation of a major policy shift, expected in May, when the United States plans to lift a pandemic-era health policy that has allowed U.S. border authorities to swiftly expel many unauthorized migrants crossing the border from Mexico.
Separate new entry restrictions that have already taken effect require most migrants hoping to win U.S. asylum to apply for an appointment at a port of entry. Problems with the new mobile app have left thousands trying in vain for an appointment while stranded in Mexican border towns, where many have already been waiting for months.
“What we have in Tijuana and other Mexican border cities is a bottleneck,” said Enrique Lucero, director of the migration services office for the city of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego. “Thousands of migrants are waiting for the opportunity to enter the U.S., and more keep arriving.”
The city’s 30 shelters can accommodate 5,600 people; as many as 15,000 migrants are currently in the city, he said.
“The number of people who are able to access the United States is a couple hundred a day,” he said, “but we have thousands here. Shelters are at full capacity.”
Even before Monday’s fire, frustration had boiled over earlier this month in Juárez, when hundreds of migrants, mostly from Venezuela, tried to storm their way across the international bridges to reach El Paso, only to clash with U.S. authorities.
Under pressure from the United States, Mexico has agreed to accept the swelling numbers of migrants turned back by American authorities, and to take other measures to help control the number crossing into the United States.
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Some local officials on the U.S. side of the border said the Biden administration had created the situation by promising to end the pandemic-related expulsion policy, known as Title 42, which resulted in thousands traveling to the border, and then quickly imposing new restrictions.
“It’s desperation,” said Ricardo Samaniego, the county judge in El Paso, which lies across the border from Ciudad Juárez. “You dangle the end of Title of 42 and then you say, ‘Nevermind,’ and people get stuck.”
He said he had learned through his counterparts in Mexico that shelters and detention centers in Juárez were at near capacity and that they were bracing for yet another surge in the days and weeks to come with plans to lift Title 42 on May 11.
Immigrant advocates have been warning for months that the situation was becoming explosive.
“The 39 lives lost last night in Ciudad Juárez are a horrifying indictment. The systems of enforcement that we have erected to patrol people who migrate are steel hands in velvet gloves, and death is part of the overhead. We are all responsible,” Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute, a faith-based organization, said on Twitter.
With shelters in many border cities full, new arrivals have resorted to sleeping in dingy hotels until their money runs out, and have then ended up on the streets and in abandoned buildings. Tensions have flared, resulting in confrontations with Mexican law enforcement officers, whom migrants have accused of beating, arresting and extorting them. Powerful cartels that control illegal border passage have kidnapped and tortured migrants.
Every day bedraggled migrant families show up at Pro Amore Dei, a Catholic shelter in Tijuana, the largest city on the Mexican side, pleading for a place to rest their heads. “Every day I turn away at least 10 families with children,” said Leticia Herrera, the director of the facility, where entire families already share one bed. “God help us, we have already exceeded capacity,” she said of the facility, which can accommodate 250.
It’s the same story at another Tijuana shelter, Juventud 2000, where nearly 200 migrant families sleep in orange, green and blue tents pitched in a converted warehouse. “We went from being semi-empty last year to having to reject people,” said José Maria Garcia, the founder. “We have to do this constantly now, day after day.”
While Mexican migrant shelters are full, there has been a significant decline in migrant numbers on the U.S. side of the border.
“The number of people in our care has been halved since the start of the year,” said Kate Clark, senior director of immigration services for Jewish Family Service of San Diego, which runs shelters in the city.
The current situation has evolved over a series of tumultuous years, amid shifting policies at the border.
President Biden took office pledging to restore a humane approach after his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, had introduced a series of repressive controls. But the number of migrants fleeing economic ruin, violence and the effects of climate change resulted in a swift surge in border crossings and heavy condemnation from Republican leaders, who have accused the president of letting the situation at the border get out of control.
Intent on curbing crossings, the Biden administration turned to more restrictive measures. It expanded the use of Title 42 to turn back a new flood of migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, while simultaneously establishing a program that enabled nationals of those countries to apply for parole in order to enter the United States from their countries of origin, if they had a financial sponsor.
Since that program’s inception, unlawful crossings have plummeted overall. After a record number of border apprehensions last year that reached 2.4 million, encounters this year have dipped to about 128,000 a month.
Last month, the Homeland Security and Justice Departments went further, announcing a new rule, to take effect after Title 42 is lifted on May 11, that would presume migrants are ineligible for asylum if they entered the country unlawfully, and require them to have requested asylum from another country they had passed through before applying in the United States.
However, those who managed to reach the border would be allowed to enter if they met certain criteria and used the mobile app to schedule an appointment.
The app, intended to provide an orderly, streamlined system for processing asylum seekers, has been overburdened with massive demand and plagued with glitches as tens of thousands of migrants have attempted to use it.
At eight ports of entry across the border, 740 migrants each day received appointments last month, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. At the entry point adjacent to Tijuana, 200 appointments were granted each day.
“Migrants arrive at the border already in distress after their journey. They have spent all their money to get here, and their hopes are dashed when they cannot manage to get an appointment on the app,” said Mr. Lucero, director of the migrant office in Tijuana.
Until the new app was rolled out, U.S. immigration lawyers were able to help especially vulnerable migrants to quickly gain entry into the United States, often escorting them across ports of entry. Now, there is no distinction made between those who are most in danger and others.
A month ago, a 4-month-old baby in need of emergency surgery died because the parents were unable to secure an appointment through the app, said Ms. Herrera of the Pro Amore Dei shelter in Tijuana. “Last year, the family would have been taken across the border, and the baby would be alive now,” said Ms. Herrera.
In her seven years running the shelter, she said, the situation had never been more dire.
“People who have been tortured, beaten and are running for their lives are stuck here,” she said. “The most vulnerable people seem to wait the longest.”
In the Mexican City of Piedras Negras, which directly borders Eagle Pass, Texas, emotions have become especially raw.
Last year, migrants who arrived at Primera Iglesia Bautista, a bare-bones, two-story structure where people sleep on tattered mattresses, often on the ground, tended to stay for a day or two before crossing into the United States.
But Pastor Israel Rodriguez, who runs the shelter, said migrants were now staying longer and longer.
On Tuesday, there were about 160 people packed into the shelter, most of them families.
“Everyone is in limbo. They come here hoping to cross but the application they are being asked to use does not work,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “So they stay, some for months, and there is no place for them to go.”
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