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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden predicted chaos at the border. Instead, migration slowed down.


A U.S. Border Patrol agent lines up migrants who had waited for days to be processed at a detention center in Jacumba, Calif., May 14, 2023. Fears of chaos at the southern border eased as arrivals ebbed after an initial surge of about 10,000 migrants just hours before the Title 42 pandemic immigration restrictions expired.

By Michael D. Shear


Two days before officials lifted the Title 42 pandemic restrictions at the southern border, President Joe Biden gave a blunt assessment of his administration’s ability to manage the surge of migrants they expected to arrive last week.


“It’s going to be chaotic for a while,” Biden predicted grimly.


When the time came, what Republicans had insisted would be a career-ending moment for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas did not fully turn into the chaos Biden and others had anticipated.


An initial surge of about 10,000 migrants just hours before the rule expired Thursday put fresh strain on full detention facilities and shelters, and scenes of migrants, some with no place to sleep but a sidewalk, underscored the searing reality of a broken immigration system.


But that was followed by a marked slowdown in migration across the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.


“America can manage this moment and we know how to do it in a manner that is both orderly and just, reflecting our values, interests and the rule of law,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, a liberal pro-immigration group in Washington.


Still, she said the Biden administration should not “buy into Republicans’ vision that this is a perpetual crisis that requires perpetual enforcement-only policies.”


The end of Title 42 after three years was a reminder — as if anyone on the border needed one — of the vulnerabilities in the nation’s immigration system, which is far beyond its capacity to deal with the number of migrants fleeing their homes and to determine who can stay and who should be deported.


But the weekend also underscored the ability of federal authorities, local governments and private nonprofits to temporarily triage the situation.


The administration sent 1,500 troops to the border to help free up more Border Patrol agents. Cities declared emergencies and opened extra shelters for migrants needing a place to sleep. Churches and other nonprofit groups received grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bolster their relief efforts. Border officials built temporary holding facilities.


The administration also imposed tough new restrictions on who qualifies for asylum, a policy that has drawn fierce attacks and legal challenges from human rights groups. And officials increased the opportunities for migrants to enter the country legally, using a mobile phone app to schedule interviews with an asylum officer.


What followed was a quieter than expected weekend in Texas, Arizona, California and nearby Mexican cities.


At Gate 42 of the border wall with El Paso, Texas, the number of migrants arriving has dwindled since Friday. On Sunday morning, the local news media reported, only about 20 people were waiting to turn themselves in. However, state and federal authorities — including the military and migration officials — have intensified operations in Samalayuca, about 30 miles south of Ciudad Juárez, to reduce “risks to the migrant population,” they wrote in a statement.


The sprawling migrant encampment caught between walls at the San Diego-Tijuana border has also emptied out in recent days as Customs and Border Protection officers begin to process the people waiting there. Trash bags and abandoned belongings were left behind. On Friday, Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero told reporters that “no serious incidents” had been reported by the authorities.


In Tamaulipas, the scenes of chaos that led many desperate families to cross the Rio Grande have mostly disappeared. In Matamoros, two officials with the Red Cross estimated that crossings had continued in an orderly manner. About 200 people showed up at entry points requesting asylum — only one-quarter of whom had not scheduled an appointment through the CBP One app, officials said in an interview.


Miguel González Ponce, a local pastor who helps house migrants in Ciudad Juárez, confirmed in an interview that shelters across the city had only around 1,400 people.


“Contrary to what was expected, migrants are not arriving en masse,” he said.


Administration officials said their new border policies and added resources contributed to the lack of chaos.


“We have been planning for this transition for months and months,” Mayorkas said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. He added: “It is too early. But the numbers that we have experienced over the past two days are markedly down over what they were prior to the end of Title 42.”


But few in Biden’s administration are celebrating what appears to be a moment of calm amid a continuing storm.


“It is still early,” Blas Nuñez-Neto, assistant secretary for border and immigration policy at the Homeland Security Department, told reporters Monday.


Conditions in countries that have led to a record number of people fleeing have not changed, Nuñez-Neto said. And the smugglers who have profited from migrants fleeing to the United States are expected to adapt their moneymaking strategies to fit the new policies in place, he said.


“They will look for any opportunity to make a profit at the expense of vulnerable individuals,” he added.


The border remains one of the government’s most intractable problems, in part because the United States is at the center of a global shift in migration caused by economic and political deterioration in many South and Central American countries. Helping to rebuild the civil societies in those countries — which the administration has tried to do — may help reduce the number of migrants, but it is a long-term goal with many obstacles.


And dealing with the border has also become one of the country’s most polarizing political issues, a situation that has for decades prevented Congress from reaching any meaningful agreement on how to make the system more efficient and fair.


Since taking control of the House of Representatives at the beginning of the year, Republicans have targeted Mayorkas, with some saying they intended to build a case for his impeachment. The situation along the border since Thursday’s lifting of Title 42 did not provide much obvious momentum for that case.


But the political debate in Washington could still shift suddenly, depending on what happens along the border in the days ahead.


“We are in Day 3,” Mayorkas said on Sunday.


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