The US late on Thursday ended pandemic-era restrictions at the US-Mexico border that blocked many migrants from their right to claim asylum in the US – but immediately replaced the so-called Title 42 restrictions with sweeping new policies designed to deter or even physically prevent people from crossing the border without permission.
In an increasingly hard line from the Biden administration, the secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, said on Thursday evening that 24,000 border patrol agents and officers had been sent to the border to enforce US laws, adding: “The border is not open.
“Starting tonight, people who arrive at the border without using a lawful pathway will be presumed ineligible for asylum. We are ready to humanely process and remove people without a legal basis to remain in the US,” he said.
The secretary added on Friday morning, appearing on CNN, of migrants arriving at the southern border: “We are taking them into our custody, we are screening and vetting them and if they do not have a basis to remain, we will remove them very swiftly.”
Additionally, the state department announced a new website aimed at informing migrants how to access legal pathways into the US. The site, MovilidadSegura.org, was created with help from the UN Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration and other groups.
In the hours before the new regulations went into effect, thousands of migrants waded through rivers, climbed walls and scrambled up embankments on to US soil, hoping to be processed before the new system went into effect at midnight US eastern time.
In Matamoros, Mexico, at the eastern end of the border close to the Gulf of Mexico, groups crossed the Rio Grande river in chin-high water. Some carried tiny babies and bags of belongings above their heads to make it into Brownsville, Texas, to ask for refuge.
They clutched cellphones above the water to light the way toward the US but, behind coils of razor wire, US authorities shouted for the migrants to turn back.
As small children, tied together by their parents to stop them being washed to their deaths in the treacherous river, scrambled up the bank wearing brightly colored inflatable rings from the crossing, uniformed soldiers pointed back where they had come from and refused to part the wire to let them come in and exercise their right to seek asylum.
“Be careful with the children,” an official shouted through a megaphone. “It is especially dangerous for the children.”
The expired rule, known as Title 42, was in place since March 2020. It allowed border officials to quickly return asylum seekers back over the border on grounds of preventing the spread of Covid-19.
While Title 42 prevented many from seeking asylum, it carried no legal consequences. After Thursday, migrants face being barred from entering the US for five years and possible criminal prosecution.
In El Paso in west Texas, hundreds of migrants camped out on downtown streets trying to figure out where to go next after crossing the border from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The first moments of the end of Title 42 in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican twin city to El Paso, were met with initial silence.
It was almost as if nothing had changed for the 500 migrants hoping to turn themselves in to US authorities outside Door 42 between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, a gate in the tall border barrier.
The group had been waiting since late afternoon, surrounded by Texas national guard and border patrol agents, and entrapped by barbed wire.
Throughout the afternoon and into the night, small groups were slowly allowed into the country, while the rest stood by.
The hot afternoon grew colder as soon as the sun set. With no belongings, many struggled to keep warm. Their only option: dust-filled blankets, jackets and sweaters that migration authorities provided from a dumpster.
In the dark of the night, cellphones were alight as migrants attempted to book one of the few asylum appointments available online through an app administered by US federal authorities, called CBP One.
Donald Trump, an anti-immigration hardliner, implemented the Title 42 public health rule in 2020 when the pandemic hit, but it was continued and even expanded by Joe Biden, despite campaign promises of a fairer and more humane system at the border. The policy has faced court battles and criticism from left and right.
The order authorized border officials to immediately remove migrants, including people seeking asylum, overriding their normal rights. The Biden administration announced in January it was ending the declared national emergencies linked to the coronavirus spelling the end of using Title 42 to deal with immigration.
Immigration advocates represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a legal challenge against the new asylum regulations on Thursday, minutes before they took effect.
The groups said the Biden regulation “dramatically curtails the availability of asylum in the United States” and mirrored similar Trump-era policies blocked in court.
Kennji Kizuka, the director of asylum policy with International Rescue Committee, described the administration’s policy as illegal and inhumane.
“President Biden during the campaign made a lot of really welcoming pledges to roll back some of the most restrictive, most inhumane Trump administration policies,” Kizuka said. “Unfortunately, of late, the administration has chosen to replace the inhumane and chaos-creating Title 42 policy with the highly restrictive asylum ban that violates both US and international law.”
On Thursday night, a federal judge in Florida blocked releases of migrants who have not yet got a date to appear in court, saying they were similar to a policy previously prohibited in March due to a failure to follow proper regulatory procedures. CBP did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, Customs and Border Protection said it would comply with the court order, while the federal agency, echoed by Mayorkas on Friday morning, called it a “harmful ruling”.
CBP said it “will result in unsafe overcrowding … and undercut our ability to efficiently process and remove migrants”.
Judge Kent Weatherell blocked the releases for two weeks.
Later on Friday it appeared that US authorities had taken up to 1,000 people who had been waiting to enter El Paso away for detention and processing in centers further along the border, to try to prevent a crush, CNN reported.
Overcrowding fears are rising since the Florida court ruling will mean authorities having to hold many people for longer, until they have a court date. Processing under Title 42 was faster, with many quickly expelled, CNN reported.
However, immigration advocates worry that even the longer asylum processing in border facilities will be too hasty to be fair.