TIJUANA – Pandemic-era limits on asylum known as Title 42 have been rarely discussed among many of tens of thousands of migrants massed on Mexico's border with the United States.
Their eyes were — and are — fixed instead on a new U.S. government mobile app that grants 1,000 people daily an appointment to cross the border and seek asylum while living in the U.S. With demand far outstripping available slots, the app has been an exercise in frustration for many — and a test of the Biden administration's strategy of coupling new legal paths to entry with severe consequences for those who don't follow them.
“You start to give up hope but it's the only way,” said Teresa Muñoz, 48, who abandoned her home in the Mexican state of Michoacan after a gang killed her husband and beat her. She has been trying for a month to gain entry through the app, called CBPOne, while staying in a Tijuana shelter with her two children and 2-year-old grandson.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the Border Patrol made 6,300 arrests on Friday — the first day after the Title 42 restrictions expired — and 4,200 Saturday. That's sharply below the 10,000-plus on three days last week as migrants rushed to get in before new policies to restrict asylum took effect.
“It is still early," Mayorkas said Sunday on CNN's ‘State of the Union.’ “We are in day three, but we have been planning for this transition for months and months. And we have been executing on our plan. And we will continue to do so.”
Despite the drop in recent days, authorities predict arrests will spike to between 12,000 and 14,000 a day, Matthew Hudak, deputy Border Patrol chief, said in a court filing Friday. And authorities cannot confidently estimate how many will cross, Hudak said, noting intelligence reports failed to quickly flag a “singular surge” of 18,000 predominantly Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, in September 2021.
More than 27,000 migrants were in custody along the border one day last week, a number that may top 45,000 by the end of May if authorities can’t release migrants without orders to appear in immigration court, Hudak said.
The administration plans to ask an appeals court Monday for permission to release migrants without orders to appear in court. Authorities say it takes between 90 minutes and two hours to process a single adult for court - potentially choking Border Patrol holding facilities – and longer to process families. By contrast, it takes only 20 minutes to release someone with instructions to report to an immigration office in 60 days, a common practice since 2021 to ease overcrowding along the border.
The Justice Department even raised the possibility of declining to take people into custody if it can’t quickly release migrants, calling that a “worst-case scenario.”
President Joe Biden, spending the weekend at his home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, said his hope was that the border numbers would “continue to go down” but that “we have a lot more work to do.”
“We need some more help from the Congress as well, in terms of funding and legislative changes,” Biden told reporters.
The administration is touting new legal pathways in an effort to deter illegal crossings, including parole for 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans a month who apply online with a financial sponsor and arrive at an airport.
Hundreds of predominantly Colombian migrants waited to be processed Saturday in searing heat near Jacumba, California, having slept for days in thatched tents east of San Diego and getting by on the Border Patrol's limited supply of cookies and water. Several said they crossed illegally after trying the app without success or hearing tales of frustration from others.
Ana Cuna, 27, said she and other Colombians paid $1,300 each to be guided across the border after reaching Tijuana. She said she touched foot on U.S. soil hours before Title 42 expired Thursday but, like others, was given a numbered wristband by the Border Patrol and, two days later, had not been processed.
Under Title 42, a public-health rule, migrants were denied asylum more than 2.8 million times on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. When it expired, the administration launched a policy to deny asylum to people who travel through another country, like Mexico, to the U.S., with few exceptions.
“We want to come according to the law and be welcomed,” said Cuna, whose thatched tent included Colombian women and families hoping to reach Chicago, San Antonio, Philadelphia and Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Releasing migrants without court orders but with instructions to report an immigration office in 60 days became widespread in 2021. Directing that processing work to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices when migrants report to the agency’s offices created additional delays – with ICE offices in New York backed up until 2033 just to schedule an initial court appearance.
U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell in Pensacola, Florida, in March ordered an end to the practice, which the administration had effectively stopped by then anyway. It chose not to appeal the ruling but reactivated the policy last week, calling it an emergency response. The state of Florida protested and Wetherell ordered the administration to avoid the quick releases for two weeks. He scheduled a hearing on Friday.
Since CBPOne launched Jan. 12 for asylum-seekers, it has exasperated many with error messages, difficulty capturing photos and a frantic daily ritual of racing thumbs on phone screens until slots run out within minutes.
In Tijuana, Muñoz looked into being smuggled through the mountains east of San Diego but determined it would cost too much. She is still haunted by walking through the Arizona desert in the mid-2000s on a grueling one-week trek. After saving money working double shifts at a supermarket near Los Angeles, she returned to Mexico to raise her children.
Last week, the administration increased the number of slots awarded on the app to 1,000 from 740, began granting priority to those who try longest, and released slots gradually throughout the day instead of all at once, which had created mad rushes. So far, Muñoz said she is unconvinced.
Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.