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Thousands of migrants cross the border from Mexico as pandemic restrictions end soon


Migrant shelters in El Paso, Texas, are overflowing, and some people have been released directly into the streets.


Federal authorities are scrambling to process thousands of migrants who've crossed the border from Mexico in recent days. All of this is happening as pandemic border restrictions are set to end in less than a week.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration.

Joel, tell us more about what's been happening in El Paso.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Sure. Migrants are waiting across the Rio Grande and lining up to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents in big numbers - more than 2,000 a day in recent days in El Paso alone. Many are hoping to seek asylum in the U.S. Here's Ruben Garcia, the executive director of Annunciation House, which runs a network of migrant shelters in El Paso, speaking yesterday on the public radio program Texas Standard.


RUBEN GARCIA: We're just seeing a huge number of refugees that are crossing the border at this particular time. And, of course, it's creating a tremendous challenge.

ROSE: Garcia says both nonprofits and the city of El Paso need more money to deal with this influx of migrants and potentially also need more space to put these migrants on an emergency basis.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Joel, why now in particular?

ROSE: Many of these migrants are fleeing from Nicaragua and Latin America, and some say they are trying to get into the U.S. before border policy changes that they think may be coming soon. It's possible that other migrants are going to wait and see what happens when these pandemic border restrictions, known as Title 42, end, which is set to happen next week. These restrictions were first put in place under former President Donald Trump. They've allowed immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants without giving them a chance to seek asylum in the U.S. Now a federal judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled that those restrictions are unlawful and given the Biden administration until Dec. 21 to stop using them.

MARTÍNEZ: So what, then, might happen next week if Title 42 indeed ends?

ROSE: There's a lot of concern that thousands more migrants will try to cross all at once. The Biden administration is reportedly considering some big changes that would sharply limit who can seek asylum at the border. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was in El Paso yesterday. He was meeting with immigration authorities, along with local political and nonprofit leaders. And he also talked to a few reporters in El Paso, including Angela Kocherga with member station KTEP.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We believe in the asylum system. We've worked very, very hard to reconstruct it after it was dismantled by the prior administration, but also building lawful, safe, orderly, humane pathways.

ROSE: Mayorkas said there are a lot of discussions underway about policy changes, but no final decisions yet. The administration is really trying to find a balance here between allowing migrants to seek asylum protections, especially the most vulnerable, while also discouraging migrants who don't have good asylum claims from crossing illegally. And like previous administrations, I think they're finding this can be a very difficult balance to strike.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And here's the thing. I mean, there's still a legal fight over Title 42. So where does that stand?

ROSE: Yes. There's a legal challenge that's still pending from Republican attorneys general in 19 states, including Arizona and Louisiana. Many of these are the same states, by the way, that successfully blocked Title 42 from ending back in the spring, when the Biden administration tried to end these restrictions before. This week, the states filed an emergency motion with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the court to keep Title 42 in place while this legal challenge plays out. The states have asked the court to rule on that request by Friday. If the states don't succeed there, they will likely turn to the Supreme Court next.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration.

Joel, thanks.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.