Rules that have allowed US border guards to summarily expel hundreds of thousands of would-be asylum seekers over the last three years expired early Friday, setting up an uncertain future for migrants and inflaming America’s always-churning immigration debate.
Tens of thousands of people were expected to try to cross into the United States over the coming days, hoping to escape the poverty and criminal gangs that wrack their own countries.
For more than three years the 3200-kilometre frontier with Mexico has been regulated by Title 42, a health provision designed to keep Covid infections at bay by turning people away before they made a claim for asylum.
But with the formal ending of the Covid emergency, that rule expired at midnight East Coast time (2pm AEST) — with new restrictions taking its place.
Those new regulations require asylum-seekers and other migrants to request entry from outside the country.
But how things will play out in practice remains unclear, and the situation has already roiled America’s heated immigration debate.
In the final hours before the pandemic-era measure expired, forces along the border fortified their posts with barbed wire, concrete barriers and heavily armed teams patrolling their front lines.
Agents in tactical gear also performed rehearsals for how to deal with rioters or mobs, should migrants attempt to descend en masse across the border.
Federal agents also remain on standby in case of riots, sources told the NY Post.
Despite Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) apprehending more than 10,000 people daily this week, there were an estimated 155,000 people still waiting in north Mexico with the intention of making it into the US, according to CNN.
Texas officials had warned of up to 13,000 people a day attempting to make it into the US after Title 42 ended.
Asylum seekers will now be processed under the earlier Title 8 measure instead.
As the sun set Thursday in Brownsville, Texas, groups of women and children were being helped across the Rio Grande river which serves as the international boundary.
Some paid 100 Mexican pesos ($8.50) for their children to be escorted over the river on rafts, sources told The Post, adding that they were all being admitted into the US — some of the last to be allowed in the country before new rules took place.
On the opposite side of the Border in San Diego, California, Border Patrol separated migrants from countries as diverse as Nepal, Jamaica, Bolivia and various African nations into groups Thursday.
They then issued them coloured arm tags and began processing them.
Although hundreds lined up, not all were granted entry to the US, according to sources.
In El Paso, which has been the busiest border crossing in the country for over a year, the city warned residents they would see increased law enforcement throughout the community.
Police presence has been high along the city’s border all week.
Bowie High School, within view of the border wall, had at least 10 law enforcement officers on campus on Thursday to soothe concerned parents, The Post witnessed.
International bridges leading from Mexico’s Cuidad Juarez into the city — areas where migrants have staged protests and demanded to be let into the country — were narrowed to one lane and fortified on the US side by CBP officers.
El Paso has been dealing with thousands of migrants, mostly from South and Central America, lining up by the border wall and attempting to claim asylum all week, leaving them with oversubscribed shelters, and more than 6000 people in custody.
Many were cut loose by a directive from Border Patrol chief Raul Ortiz issued on Wednesday, which was swiftly blocked by a federal judge in Florida Thursday night.
The order said any shelter over 125 per cent capacity — which was reportedly five out of the nine in the Southwest — would let migrants out into the US under “parole with conditions”, and giving them 60 days to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The city’s mayor, Oscar Leeser hoped the migrant surge may not be as overwhelming as previously expected, but said the city must remain vigilant.
“You’ve seen the numbers go down, but we don’t know what’s coming in the next day,” Mr Leeser explained. “We don’t know what’s coming in the next 10 days. We can’t say that the worst is over.”
Migrants along the border and much further south in Mexico told The Post on Thursday they have no intention of stopping their journeys north just because the Biden administration has enacted tougher new laws to keep people out.
“If they don’t let people in tonight, they’re not just going to stand there,” Leonel Rojas, 20, a Venezuelan lined up at the border wall for his chance to enter the US told The Post on Thursday night.
“People are going to lose their minds and try to find a way to cross.”
The administration of President Joe Biden is trying to walk a tightrope between offering the pathways to asylum demanded by members of his own Democratic Party, and avoiding the looped footage of hundreds of people pouring over the border.
“Starting tonight, people who arrive at the border without using a lawful pathway will be presumed ineligible for asylum,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said as Title 42 expired.
“We have 24,000 Border Patrol agents and officers at the Southwest border and have surged thousands of troops and contractors, and over a thousand asylum officers to help enforce our laws.”
Alongside the CBP, 1400 Department of Homeland Security personnel, 1500 members of the Department of Defense and 550 US troops have been deployed to the border.
Mr Biden’s Republican Party opponents have seized on what they say is an “invasion”.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told reporters in Brownsville there were 22,000 people camping just on the other side of the frontier from this southernmost Texas city alone.
“And I have to say I am angry, because this is deliberate, this was a decision that was made by President Joe Biden and [Vice President] Kamala Harris and congressional Democrats to open up the border to what is nothing less than an invasion,” he said.
Senator Roger Marshall told Fox News the border situation was a “disaster”.
“The number one threat to our national security is right here in southern Texas, all the way to Arizona,” he said. “This is not the America that I grew up in.”
AFP reporters in Brownsville said there were dozens of police cars deployed on the US side of the bridge that connects the city to its Mexican neighbour Matamoros.
Heavy earthmoving equipment could be seen a little further on, with personnel readying the ground to install barbed wire.
In El Paso, hundreds of people who passed into the country through a legitimate border gate on Thursday had been processed, allowed to lodge their initial asylum claim.
But there was confusion among rank and file border patrol officers about exactly what will happen in the coming hours and days.
“We don’t know,” said one when asked how they would handle migrants.
At the frontier Thursday, some made last-minute attempts to beat the deadline, fording the narrow but fast-moving Rio Grande river near Brownsville hoping they might simply be released into the United States after turning themselves into Border Patrol.
“I hope to be able to stay in this country,” said 29-year-old Ecuadoran Jimmy Munoz, just after climbing onto US soil.
“But I have doubts and fears that they will let me.”
Families were split in the confusion. Patricia Vargas from Venezuela wept as she sat at the bus station in Brownsville, where hundreds of migrants awaited the chance for transportation onward.
Her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren failed to make the crossing. “We were five in total and only I was able to get through,” she sobbed.
Asylum-seekers are required to seek interviews via a smartphone app — though users report it is glitchy and presents a hurdle for those without working phones or Wi-Fi.
Mr Mayorkas defended the app, saying technical issues were being addressed.
“The greatest challenge with respect to the CBP One app is not a technological challenge, but rather, the fact that we have many more migrants than we have the capacity to make appointments for,” he conceded.