The Biden administration began implementing a sweeping policy shift at the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday as a COVID-era order that had allowed the swift expulsion of many migrants expired and new asylum restrictions took effect amid confusion and uncertainty.
Several last-minute court actions added to questions about how President Joe Biden’s reworked border policies will play out, with advocates filing a legal challenge to the new asylum regulation as it took effect.
Facing concerns that the end of a 3-year-old order – known as Title 42 – could strain U.S. border facilities to the breaking point, U.S. officials were keeping a close eye on the movements of migrants that had already reached record numbers in recent days.
“We continue to encounter high levels of non-citizens at the border, but we did not see a substantial increase overnight or an influx at midnight,” when Title 42 expired, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official Blas Nunez-Neto told reporters on Friday.
But even as relative calm mostly settled over the border area early on Friday, there was a sense of confusion among the migrants gathered there.
In El Paso, Texas, hundreds of migrants slept outside on American soil in front of the border fence as the sun rose on Friday morning. Texas National Guard, state troopers and border agents patrolled the surrounding area where migrants have waited after surrendering to U.S. border authorities.
Across the border in Ciudad Juarez, several hundred people formed a single-file line at the U.S border fence, where authorities let them in several at a time before putting them on buses.
Armed members of the Texas National Guard patrolled the area near the Rio Grande river, erecting tall fencing and coils of barbed wire to stop more migrants from joining the group.
Immigration advocates represented by the American Civil Liberties Union filed a late night legal challenge the new asylum bars, claiming they violate U.S. laws and international agreements.
Advocates argue the new regulation, put in place by Biden’s Democratic administration to curb illegal crossings, resembles restrictions imposed by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump. The rights groups successfully blocked the Trump rules in court and asked the same California-based federal judge to block these as well.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the Biden regulation in a series of television interviews Friday morning, saying it aims to encourage migrants to enter using legal pathways rather than crossing illegally
“It’s going to be a tough transition,” he told MSNBC.
U.S. asylum officers hurried to figure what would be required to apply the regulation and the logistics of interviewing migrants held in U.S. border facilities.
In chaotic scenes on Thursday, migrants scrambled to enter the country before Title 42 expired and the new rule went into effect. The regulation presumes most migrants are ineligible for asylum if they passed through other countries without first seeking protection elsewhere, or if they failed to use legal pathways for U.S. entry, which Biden has expanded.
Tens of thousands of migrants this week waded through rivers, climbed walls and embankments onto U.S. territory, hoping to be processed before midnight on May 11.
In Matamoros, Mexico, on Thursday afternoon 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.
More migrants – including families with young children wrapped in Mylar blankets – awaited processing while penned between two towering border walls in San Diego, California, across from Tijuana, Mexico.
Trump first implemented Title 42 in March 2020 as COVID swept the globe, with U.S. health officials saying it was needed to curb the spread of the virus in detention facilities. The order allowed American authorities to quickly expel migrants to Mexico or other countries without a chance to request U.S. asylum.
Some Democrats and immigration advocates say Biden’s new regulation is too harsh and denies people their right to apply for asylum, comparing it to measures implemented under Trump blocked by U.S. courts.
The measure counters previous statements Biden made in 2020 on the campaign trail, when he said he thought it was “wrong” for people not to be able to seek asylum on American soil.
Biden, who campaigned on reversing Trump’s policies, kept the order in place and ultimately expanded it.
Migrants have been expelled more than 2.7 million times under Title 42, although the total includes many repeat crossers.
Mexico has generally only accepted certain nationalities – its own citizens, migrants from northern Central America and more recently migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua. So, during the same period, around 2.8 million migrants ineligible for expulsion were allowed into the United States under a process known as Title 8 to pursue their immigration claims in court, which can take months or years.
Even before Title 42 expired, along with the end of the COVID public health emergency, Biden’s administration was grappling with record numbers of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, straining U.S. authorities and border cities.
Republicans fault Biden for easing Trump’s more restrictive policies, while the Biden administration has blamed Republicans for blocking legislation to reform the immigration system.
But with the new asylum rule, Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas and other Biden officials have been trying to spread the message that people who cross illegally will face consequences, sending troops and thousands of additional personnel to the border.