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The border braces for the end of a controversial health policy that has expelled millions of migrants

People wait in line.
Gregory Bull
/
Associated Press
People line up for food donated from a nearby church at a camp for migrants Friday, May 14, 2021, in Reynosa, Mexico. The encampment, like others along Mexico's northern border with the United States, are temporary home for migrants hoping to seek asylum in the United States.

El Paso and the federal government are sending migrants away from crowded border facilities ahead of the scheduled end to Title 42.

The Department of Homeland Security is ramping up its efforts to bus and fly migrants away from crowded border facilities ahead of the end of a public health policy that has expelled millions of migrants since 2020.

The department released the plan this week as the policy, Title 42, is set to expire Wednesday, Dec. 21. The Trump administration invoked Title 42 in 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19, and it was kept in place by President Biden despite opposition from Democrats and several immigrant rights organizations. A federal judge ruled last month that the policy isn’t justified and ordered it lifted; the Biden administration has appealed the ruling.

“We anticipate migration levels will increase as smugglers seek to take advantage of and profit from vulnerable migrants once the Title 42 public health order is lifted. This will likely include spreading false information about what the end of Title 42 will mean,” the DHS memo states.

The memo is an updated version of guidance issued in April, according to CNN, which first reported on the plan Thursday. DHS is considering building more temporary holding areas and said it has added thousands to its ranks over the last year to help process the migrants, most of whom are from South and Central America.

“We have hired nearly one thousand Border Patrol Processing Coordinators and added 2,500 contractors and personnel from other government agencies, which … are helping return agents to the field to perform their essential law enforcement and national security mission,” the memo states.

Border Patrol facilities used to hold and process asylum seekers are stretched beyond capacity as a record number of unauthorized crossings continues. In El Paso alone Border Patrol agents reported an average of about 2,500 crossings each day last weekend, and the influx continued this week. Hundreds of migrants have been released onto the city’s streets because shelters don’t have enough room, forcing some to sleep in below-freezing temperatures.

It’s unclear where or how many additional temporary holding facilities will be added if Title 42 is lifted as scheduled. But the use of the facilities has sparked outrage in the past, including during the Trump administration when what critics called a “tent city” opened at a port of entry in Tornillo, a small farming community about 20 miles east of El Paso.

Many migrants intend to seek asylum in the United States and surrender to federal authorities. Some, however, evade border agents, and the Biden administration via DHS said it will take a tougher stance on people who try to sneak into the country.

“For noncitizens seeking to evade apprehension, repeat offenders, and those engaging in smuggling efforts, we are increasing referrals for prosecutions,” the DHS memo states. “In FY 2023 to date, there has been a 237 percent increase in prosecutions as compared to the same period in FY 2022. This will continue to be an important lever as we ramp up prosecution for repeat offenders.”

“We don’t want to see people out on the street.”

On Thursday El Paso Mayor Oscar Lesser outlined steps the city is taking to help migrants find safe havens as shelters continue to be overwhelmed. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency recently committed $6 million to aid city officials and has ramped up efforts to take migrants to destinations farther north.

“I know that there has been a lot of concern over safe street releases,” Lesser said. “We want to make sure that they are safe.”

Leeser said city buses have been picking up migrants in the afternoon and evenings to take them to shelters and hotels, but some prefer to wait for friends or relatives before leaving downtown.

“We’ve talked to them and we’ve asked them to get on the bus … so we can provide shelter for them,” he said. “Some of them say they want to stay out there, and some of them say they are waiting for family members to come over. But it’s been one of the things that’s been really important. We don’t want to see people out on the street.”

Deputy El Paso City Manager Mario D’Agostino said the city is focusing on supplementing transportation options and has urged the federal government to increase processing as the city prepares for the end of Title 42. That comes as about 1,200 migrants have been released to shelters and non-governmental organizations daily over the last few days. D’Agostino said an additional 200 to 500 migrants are being released onto the streets every day.

“They are not wanting to stay in this region, so they are passing through,” he said. “So that increase in processing capacity is to help with these numbers. When you have that many people daily coming into the city of El Paso, they are looking for transportation out of the city.”

He said local air and ground transportation facilities are struggling to keep up with demand.

“Our airport has a limited number of available flights on a daily basis,” D’Agostino said. “We have a couple of bus transportation companies. They also have limited seating, so when you start looking at these high numbers that Title 42 might bring us when it is taken away, that will add to these numbers.”

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.