El Paso, Texas
As US officials brace for a surge of migrants they expect will follow the expiration of a Trump-era border restriction policy this Thursday night, federal agents are leaning on migrants already in El Paso, Texas, to turn themselves in to immigration authorities – a move stirring anxiety among those targeted.
Federal agents, reacting to a steep uptick in migrants in El Paso over the last week even with the restriction policy still in place, twice approached those who’d been living on sidewalks outside a church to ask them to visit a US Customs and Border Protection enforcement center for processing Tuesday. The first approach involved handing out flyers telling recipients they’d be “processed by CBP officers and placed on the correct immigration path.”
Hundreds turned themselves in for immigration processing in El Paso on Tuesday, a source familiar with the data told CNN. And by Tuesday night, only about 150 migrants remained outside the church – down from about 2,000 at one point earlier in the week, Dave Stout, an El Paso County commissioner, said.
El Paso is one of several border communities that have seen a surge in migrants to the US even before the expiration of Title 42, a 2020 policy that allowed US authorities to swiftly expel migrants encountered at the southern border, with some exceptions, ostensibly to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Federal authorities have warned that the policy’s expiration Thursday at 11:59 p.m. ET could even further increase the number of migrants trying to cross into the US and intensify an already challenging humanitarian crisis at the southern border.
In El Paso, border protection officials said that agents starting Tuesday would work to whittle down the number of migrants there who’d not yet been processed by immigration authorities. Agents intended to “process individuals for vetting,” and start expulsion or other removal proceedings as applicable, Homeland Security spokesperson Marsha Espinosa told CNN.
Two migrants CNN spoke with in El Paso Tuesday morning said they were confused about what would happen next.
“We’ve heard we’re going to be deported – that our papers are no good,” said Nelson Pirela, a migrant from Venezuela. “We heard immigration is coming and that we have to turn ourselves in.”
“People are nervous, they’re scared,” he said. Outside the church Tuesday afternoon, CNN spoke to migrants who said they were too fearful to surrender to authorities.
Migrant arrivals along the entire southern border already are on an upswing. Authorities encountered nearly 10,000 migrants along the border Monday, according to a Homeland Security official, continuing an upward trend in border arrests. And about 155,000 migrants are estimated to be in shelters and streets across northern Mexican states bordering the US, according to a source familiar with federal estimates.
Many heading to the US are making long and dangerous treks to the border in hopes of crossing and finding a better, safer life for their families.
“Like many others, we are looking for a better way of life. We’re looking for safety to go out in the streets,” migrant Marcela Aguilar told CNN affiliate KGTV in San Diego.
US officials have said they’re prepared for the Title 42 expiration.
A total of 550 US troops will begin a mission to support CBP along the southwest border on Wednesday, a spokesperson for US Northern Command told CNN, with hundreds more to follow by the end of the month.
Still, President Joe Biden on Tuesday said the policy’s expiration and the migrant surge expected to follow are “going to be chaotic for a while.”
The president noted the administration’s effort to set up regional processing centers in countries where migrants traverse on their way to the US southern border, so they can apply there to come to the US. It’s unclear when those centers will be running.
States and cities have also been preparing for the expected surge, with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul issuing an executive order Tuesday allowing cities and the state to tap into more resources ahead of the policy’s expiration. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also issued an emergency declaration, saying the city’s resources are now stretched to “the breaking point” and existing facilities are full.
In El Paso, CNN spoke with several migrants Tuesday as they waited in line under the blazing sun at a Customs and Border Protection Center with plans to turn themselves in. Several said they crossed into El Paso undetected, but wanted to surrender to immigration authorities in hopes of seeking asylum and pleading their case.
Among those waiting in line was Katia Arzuza, her husband and their teenage daughter.
“We want the permit, but most importantly, the work permit, to be legal in the country,” Arzuza told CNN. “We would like them to give us everything, permanent residency to stay in the country. We don’t want to go back.”
A border patrol officer came over during Arzuza’s interview with CNN, telling the trio that families with minors were being sent to the front of the line. The family hustled to the front, unclear about what would meet them on the other end.
The reasons why people immigrate to the US are widely varied, experts say, with some fleeing violence, while others are looking for economic opportunities or to reunite with family members who are already in the country.
When Title 42 lifts, US officials say they will lean more on the decades-old Title 8, under which migrants could face more severe consequences for crossing the border unlawfully, such as being barred from entering the US for at least five years.
Asylum-seekers who cross the border without first applying for asylum could be removed under that Title 8 authority.
While Title 8 carries more legal consequences, especially for those caught a second time, processing times under that authority take longer than Title 42 expulsions and could strain already pinched resources, creating a bottleneck amid heavy mass migration.
Border officials had already been apprehending migrants at the border under Title 8, with more than 1.15 million people apprehended under that authority at the southern border in fiscal year 2022, according to US Customs and Border Protection.
As the expiration of Title of 42 approaches, some migrants in El Paso are growing desperate and at times falling victim to scams that promise legal paperwork and a chance to travel freely.
Erick Mendoza Caceres, a migrant from Honduras, on Tuesday held one of the flyers that border officers were distributing. He also held a document he said cost him $50 and guaranteed him the ability to travel within the country.
“I want to be here legally, and I want to know if this paperwork is legal,” Caceres said.
Despite the threat of being detained, Caceres told CNN he was hopeful he could get clarity on the veracity of his paperwork. He broke down in tears after being asked what he would do if he were deported.
El Paso city officials told CNN that Caceres was likely a victim to one of the many scams being perpetrated against unknowing migrantswho are desperate for documentation and answers.
“The concern is that there are some migrants that are being taken advantage of, purchasing fake documentation, and that is a concern for us because we cannot provide support if they’re getting fake documentation,” Laura Cruz-Acosta, an El Paso spokesperson, told CNN. “We need to provide true documentation, and that true documentation really comes from the federal government.”