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El Paso receives thousands of migrants before Title 42 ends

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Federal authorities in El Paso are busy processing thousands of migrants who've crossed the border from Mexico in recent days. Shelters in the city are overflowing, and some people are being released onto the street. It could be a preview of what's to come border-wide when pandemic restrictions are set to end next week. We're joined now by Angela Kocherga from member station KTEP in El Paso and Joel Rose, NPR's immigration correspondent in D.C. Welcome to you both.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi there.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: Angela, I want to start with you. More than 2,000 people a day have been crossing the border to El Paso recently. So tell us what's going on there.

KOCHERGA: Well, they're still coming. Migrants are wading across the Rio Grande, lining up to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents. And most are seeking asylum. I talked to Michele Hurtado (ph), who crossed with her 2-year-old son.

MICHELE HURTADO: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: And she's saying, if God and fate and the United States allow, she'll ask for asylum in the name of God.

SUMMERS: And, Angela, is what we're seeing now connected to the changes in policy that we mentioned that are coming next week?

KOCHERGA: Yes. Hurtado, like so many others, said she decided to cross into the U.S. now before another policy change. She had been waiting in Mexico on the border for the last two months. So here's the background. This pandemic border restriction, called Title 42, is set to expire in a week because of a judge's order. It's a health rule that has really functioned as a de facto border enforcement tool, and it's been used more than 2 million times to quickly expel migrants without giving them a chance to seek asylum.

SUMMERS: And, Joel, help us understand. What is the latest on the legal fight over Title 42?

ROSE: Right. Well, like Angela said, these restrictions were first put in place by the Trump administration. And last month a judge in Washington, D.C. found the Title 42 policy unlawful and ordered the Biden administration to stop using it. His ruling is set to take effect one week from tonight at midnight. But there is a legal challenge that is still pending from Republican attorneys general in 19 states, including Arizona and Louisiana. And they're many of the same states that were able to block the end of Title 42 before back in the spring, when the Biden administration tried to end these restrictions back then. Now these states are trying to intervene in this current case in D.C. Last night they filed an emergency motion with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the court to stay the lower court ruling while their legal challenge plays out. And they've asked that appeals court to make a decision on their request by Friday. And if the states don't succeed there, they will likely turn to the Supreme Court next.

SUMMERS: So, Angela, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was in El Paso today, and I understand that you sat down with him. What did he have to say about the situation there.

KOCHERGA: Well, yeah. Mayorkas was here in El Paso to see preparations for the likely end of Title 42, and he toured Border Patrol facilities, met with the city and county leaders and nonprofit organizations managing temporary shelters. I asked him what he'd tell people who see the images of large groups of people wading across the Rio Grande now. And he said that they're exercising their legal right to ask for asylum and surrendering to Border Patrol in an orderly way. But he also said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Quite frankly, it's an extraordinarily powerful picture of why we need our immigration system reformed through legislation. Our asylum system is broken. Our immigration system as a whole is broken. It hasn't been updated or reformed in more than 40 years.

KOCHERGA: And Mayorkas talked about efforts to change the asylum process so people don't all end up on the border.

SUMMERS: Joel, if you can, talk to us about the larger policy around asylum. What is the Biden administration's position going forward?

ROSE: The administration is really trying to find a balance here, I think, between allowing migrants to seek asylum protection, 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 is a very difficult balance to strike. The administration is reportedly considering some big changes that would sharply limit who can seek asylum at the border, possibly modeled on a recently announced process for Venezuelans. The Biden administration created a new legal pathway for some migrants from Venezuela but only if they have sponsors in the U.S. and, crucially, only if they apply from outside of the U.S. and do not cross the border illegally. The administration, I think, sees that program as a success, so we could see that process expanded to other nationalities now as well.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, I've got a question for both of you. What are you watching for in the next week when it comes to the border and the possible end of the Title 42 policy?

ROSE: I mean, I'm looking at how many migrants will cross and also where they will cross. You know, this is not just El Paso we're talking about. There are tens of thousands of migrants on asylum waiting lists at ports of entry from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Tijuana and the Pacific Ocean. Many of those migrants are staying in small camps or shelters or even basements. So it's tough to predict where they will cross in the greatest numbers and also tough to know whether immigration authorities and border communities will be prepared.

SUMMERS: And, Angela, what about you?

KOCHERGA: Yeah. Here in El Paso, yeah, we are really already dealing with a very dire situation. Shelters are full. Border Patrol is sending people to other cities to be processed because they can't keep up. Nonprofits and the city and county of El Paso are working together to help migrants, but they can't do much more, they say, without financial help from the federal government.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with KTEP's Angela Kocherga in El Paso as well as Joel Rose, NPR's immigration correspondent in Washington, D.C. Thanks to both of you.

ROSE: You're welcome.

KOCHERGA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
Emmy winning multimedia journalist Angela Kocherga is news director with KTEP and Borderzine. She is also multimedia editor with ElPasoMatters.org, an independent news organization.