The United States bolted tough new immigration policies into place Friday, setting up an uncertain future for desperate migrants reaching its southern border, as a top official expressed confidence the system will hold.
Thousands of people remained in Mexico hoping to enter the United States, as it was not yet clear how the stringent new rules for people crossing the border illegally would be enforced.
In the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, some 200 migrants were blocked by US troops from accessing Gate 42, the entry point to El Paso, Texas, where hundreds crossed on Thursday.
In Brownsville, Texas, migrants who crossed before Friday were being taken to detention centers for processing, with many hoping to register their names and be released into the country.
Agustin Sortomi said he, his wife and two children had tried to surrender to US authorities but had been turned away.
“I don’t know what to do,” he told AFP. “We haven’t realized our dream. Only God knows when we will.”
US officials meanwhile reported the death of an unaccompanied migrant child in the custody of Health and Human Services, which takes care of children entering the country unaccompanied.
The department gave no details, but Honduran Foreign Minister Enrique Reina said a 17-year-old Honduran boy had died in an HHS facility in Florida.
– US threatens tougher consequences –
“The border is not open,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas declared at midnight as the United States lifted Title 42, the pandemic-era rule that had allowed officials to summarily expel border crossers, including those seeking asylum, since March 2020.
The rule change brings back into effect a decades-old policy known as Title 8, which threatens illegal border-crossers with five-year bans and possible criminal charges, and seeks to push asylum seekers to apply to migrate from outside the country.
But many from all over the Americas and as far as India and Russia remained hopeful that their pleas for asylum — based on poverty, crime and oppression in their home countries — would open US doors.
As many as 10,000 every day over the past week tried to enter the country, border officials told the US media.
Many turned themselves into US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hoping to be registered and “paroled” — let go because authorities did not have the capacity to house them or expel them.
– ‘Looking for happiness’ –
Overnight in Brownsville, dozens of police cars were deployed on the US side of the bridge connecting the city to its Mexican neighbor Matamoros.
Gabriel Landaeta, 22, was among those sleeping in the streets.
“If someday someone makes a documentary, let them put that the Venezuelan with a good heart came here looking for happiness,” he told AFP.
To create more legal pathways, Washington is setting up regional processing centers, expanded guest worker programs, and more admissions for refugees from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela and other troubled countries.
For asylum seekers, it has launched an app, CBPOne, to arrange immigration interviews at the border.
While many have complained of glitches, Amadeo Diaz, 62, was in Tijuana south of California with his family for his asylum interview.
The family, from Arcelia in Mexico’s south, said they faced kidnapping and other violence in the region where drug cartels wield great power.
“There is a lot of kidnapping, a lot of killing. Innocent people are being killed and that is why we decided to come here to ask for help,” said Diaz.
– Lawsuits against Biden policy –
The border policy shift ordered by President Joe Biden has been controversial, with his supporters on the left saying new rules are too strict while opponents on the right have claimed, without evidence, that he is “opening the borders.”
His new policy came under immediate legal attack.
In Florida, a federal judge agreed to a request from the state’s Republican administration and ordered border patrol to stop granting parole to border crossers and asylum seekers — letting them remain in the United States while their cases are reviewed, a process that can take years.
And in Texas, 13 Republican-led states filed a suit declaring parole “illegal.”
Parole “creates incentives for even more illegal aliens to travel to the southwest border,” they said.
– ‘Calm and normal’-
Some of the pressure south of the border appeared to alleviate Friday, as Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the number of US-bound migrants crossing his country was ebbing.
He said only around 26,500 migrants were waiting in Mexican cities along the long US frontier, and the situation was “calm and normal.”
“The flux is dropping today. We have not had confrontations or situations of violence on the border,” Ebrard told reporters.
But the United Nations warned any lasting solution to the region’s migration challenges would have to be built jointly by the United States and its southern neighbors.
“The Americas… are going through an unprecedented displacement crisis,” Olga Sarrado, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva.
“Just decisions from one single country are not going to fix the challenges and we cannot forget that these are human beings.”