CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico—Thousands of migrants have arrived at the northern Mexican border in recent days in hopes of crossing into the U.S. legally, driven by word that the Biden administration will end a Trump-era policy prohibiting their entry into the U.S.
The scene is playing out across the border. In Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, roughly 1,000 migrants have recently set up camp along the shore of the Rio Grande River in hopes of entering the U.S., according to immigrant-rights activists.
In Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, Texas, at least 20,000 mostly Venezuelan migrants are waiting for the policy’s end and a caravan of more than a thousand arrived in mid December. In Tijuana around 9,000 migrants are waiting, according to the city’s municipal director of migrant care, up from an estimated 6,000 in November.
Many of those arriving are new to Mexico’s border cities. They join thousands of others who have been waiting in camps, shelters and cheap accommodations for a year or longer waiting to legally gain entry to the U.S.
The surge in the number of migrants along Mexico’s northern border underscores the stakes facing President Joe Biden and his administration as they attempt to end Title 42, a Trump-era policy that gives U.S. authorities broad discretion to summarily deny entry to asylum seekers seeking protection. The U.S. has expelled migrants some 2.5 million times under Title 42 since it was implemented in March 2020, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The Biden administration was scheduled to end the policy on December 21, but a last-minute intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court means it could be days, weeks, or even months before there is clarity about the policy’s future.
“We are not allowed to enter now, and I just learned about it when I was already in Mexico,” said Orlando, a 29-year–old Venezuelan who asked VICE World News not to use his full name. He was traveling with his wife and two kids—aged 4 and 6—and they had arrived in Ciudad Juárez three days earlier. The family of four walked a stretch of the Rio Grande looking for someone with information regarding the future of Title 42.
“I’m not sure what is next for us. I guess we will pray to God that Title 42 ends and we have at least a chance to be heard. One chance is all we need,” said Orlando.
Title 42 has fundamentally transformed U.S. immigration policy and the U.S.-Mexico border along with it. For Biden, it’s both a logistical crutch and a moral liability, as his administration has returned migrants to some of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, where they have been subject to kidnapping, extortion and violence. It’s also become the subject of nonstop legal wrangling.
Venezuelans would stand to benefit the most from the policy’s end, as they can’t be deported because there are no formal diplomatic ties between the two countries. Without Title 42 to justify their expulsion to Mexico, they could stay in the U.S. to pursue their asylum claims.
Former President Donald Trump implemented Title 42 in March 2020, ostensibly as a means to stop the spread of COVID-19 by barring asylum seekers from entering the U.S. Migrants who would have otherwise been allowed into the U.S. were instead expelled to Mexico to wait indefinitely.
On Tuesday Dec. 21, when Title 42 was set to expire, hundreds of migrants crossed the Rio Grande and set foot on U.S. soil in hopes that they would be admitted to request asylum. But Border Patrol agents were waiting for them and the migrants were immediately returned to Mexico under the policy.
U.S. National Guard members and Texas troopers have also gathered at the U.S. side of the Rio Grande in anticipation of a surge of migrants. They’ve erected barbed wire to block them from crossing the border and surrendering to Border Patrol agents. One National Guard agent told migrants on Monday that it was “illegal to cross the river” and that they would be turned away. “You need to go to the international ports of entry,” he said over a megaphone in Spanish.
But those who tried their luck at one of the ports of entry connecting Ciudad Juárez with El Paso were also turned away.
“There were two officers in the middle of the bridge who told us it was closed for us and to go away. They didn’t say anything else or where else we should go,” said Claudia, a 26-year-old Venezuelan who did not want to give her full name.
During his presidential campaign in 2020, Biden called Trump’s policies toward asylum seekers “a moral failing and a national shame.” He attempted to terminate Title 42 on May 23, but Republican-led states successfully sued to halt the change. They argued that ending the policy would trigger an “unmitigated catastrophe” at the border.
Since then, the Biden administration has actually expanded its use of Title 42. In October, it announced that for the first time Venezuelans would be subject to Title 42 and automatically expelled to Mexico. It has also deported thousands of Haitians under the policy.
All pretense that Title 42 is a public health measure to combat the pandemic has long disappeared. Even Democratic members of Congress called for the policy to remain in place, fearful that its rescission could fuel a border crisis.
Then, in November, a U.S. federal judge ruled on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to overturn Title 42. Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. agreed, calling the policy “arbitrary and capricious.” He gave the federal government until Dec. 21 to rescind it.
Once again, Republican-led states intervened in an effort to maintain Title 42. On Monday, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts put a temporary hold on terminating it.
Should the high court allow Title 42 to expire, it’s unclear how U.S. officials will handle the influx of migrants. There are no guidelines for who gets to enter first, nor instructions about when and where to cross.
“Title 42 has overall failed,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, an immigrant-rights organization based in Washington, D.C. “It’s a crutch for having to address these underlying issues.”
He said the Biden administration has danced around the policy for years. “They are trying to have their cake and eat it too,” he said. “It’s incoherent. There are very clearly different factions in the administration and they have disagreements about what the proper steps forward are.”