The intense rainstorm that hit this area Saturday deepened a humanitarian crisis that has unfolded as asylum seekers rushed to enter the United States in advance of the Biden administration’s tightening of immigration rules. Since taking effect Thursday night, the new U.S. policy has proceeded in relative calm, with border apprehensions dropping. Yet the desperation in the inundated camp in Matamoros underscored the combustible nature of the situation, and the questions swirling around the new policy.
Will President Biden’s new limits on asylum discourage migrants from making a trek that was already dangerous, expensive, and even painful? Will people seeking to escape severe poverty and violence have the patience to wait abroad for asylum appointments? Will Mexico be able to respond to Washington’s urgent requests to detain U.S.-bound migrants, while also keeping the peace in places like Matamoros?
Roja, 52, a shopkeeper who arrived at the border two weeks ago, wasn’t deterred by the new U.S. restrictions, or the storm that swamped the migrant camp. He has a 6-year-old daughter back home with Down syndrome, he said. Venezuela’s economy is in shambles, and he hasn’t been able to earn enough to pay for her therapy.
“How can I go back to Venezuela? I don’t have a peso,” he said.
Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Tex., offers a glimpse of the unintended consequences that erupt with a change in immigration policy. In the past month, Venezuelans surged into the city, with the number of migrants jammed into shelters, apartments and flimsy tents jumping from around 700 to more than 6,000, according to Juan José Rodríguez Alvarado, head of the Tamaulipas state’s migration institute.
Some had heard rumors that migrants would be allowed to enter the United States more easily once a pandemic-era restriction, Title 42, was retired Thursday night. That rule allowed U.S. authorities to summarily expel asylum seekers.
“They have come to believe that, when Title 42 is suspended, the U.S. border will be open to them,” Rodríguez Alvarado said. But arriving migrants quickly learned that entry might only become more difficult.
The Biden administration’s new policy requires asylum seekers to make appointments for their interviews on an app, CBP One, that’s plagued by glitches. They can be disqualified if they already passed through another country where they could have applied for refuge, like Mexico. Those deported will now face a five-year ban on reentry.
Fearing such obstacles, hundreds of migrants poured across the Rio Grande to seek asylum Thursday, scrambling up Texas riverbanks strung with concertina wire and lined by U.S. border officials and National Guard.
Earlier in the week, unlawful crossings topped 10,000 per day, but on Friday, Customs and Border Protection recorded a significant drop, with only 6,300 apprehensions, according to CBP data obtained by The Washington Post. An additional 1,500 migrants were processed at ports of entry on Friday.
But with nearly 27,000 migrants jamming border cities, Mexican authorities have acted cautiously to avoid inflaming the situation. Migration agents, who generally don’t carry weapons, were deployed along the riverbank in Matamoros on Thursday. But many migrants brushed off their warnings not to cross to the U.S. side.
The Mexican government deployed extra national guard troops, but disarmed them “with the goal of avoiding confrontations with groups of migrants,” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Friday.
Nonetheless, under U.S. pressure, Mexico has pledged to continue a crackdown on U.S.-bound migrants that began during the Trump administration. On Friday, authorities went a step further, announcing they were suspending permits that allowed undocumented migrants to transit Mexico. The move followed the temporary closure of 33 government migrant-holding facilities, because of an investigation following a deadly fire in March at a detention center in Ciudad Juárez. That left authorities with less space to house undocumented migrants.
The U.S. government has considered Mexico a crucial partner in containing the northward flow of migrants. In 2022, it apprehended nearly 450,000 migrants, more than triple the number in 2018. For all its efforts, though, a record number of migrants were detained by U.S. border agents last year.
Jose Maria Ramos Garcia, a political scientist at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, said it was difficult for Mexico to make more of an impact because of the “very broad role of traffickers” who smuggle migrants — often working with corrupt officials.
In addition, he said, there was a “huge incentive” for people to abandon countries like Venezuela. Around 7 million people have fled the oil-producing nation as the economy has shriveled under an authoritarian leftist government.
Roja said he left because his daughter’s twice-a-week therapy sessions cost $25 each — a princely sum in a country where the minimum wage is just $6 a month. “And they told me the opportunity [to cross into the United States] was going to end” when Title 42 was suspended.
Like many U.S.-bound Venezuelans, he trekked through the 60-mile Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, stumbling over sharp rocks in the mountains, running out of drinking water and hearing reports of travelers raped or assaulted. He spent more than $1,600 on his month-long journey.
In the last few days, he’s set his hopes on getting an appointment via the CBP One app. But when the rainstorm flooded his $20 tent, his phone stopped working. “I am asking God to help all of us to pass, with the app,” he said.
Life was grim at the camp even before the rainstorm. Migrants said they often eat only one meal a day. A row of port-a-potties near Roja’s tent is overflowing with human waste. Many people bathe in the river.
Mexican local and state authorities say they’ve received little federal aid to help the asylum seekers. (The national government says it’s expanded its asylum and job programs for them). In Juarez, migrants say they are harassed by municipal police if they congregate downtown. “They rob us constantly. They do random ‘checkpoints’ but those are done just to take our cellphones and what little money we have,” said José Alfredo Alvarez, a Mexican migrant from violence-plagued Guanajuato.
The Biden administration is combining its more restrictive asylum policy with new incentives for migrants who play by the rules. It’s agreed to receive up to 30,000 people a month from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti if they apply through a process known as parole. The administration is planning to encourage migrants to seek entry through new offices in Guatemala, Colombia and other countries, which would also offer possible resettlement to Canada and Spain.
Tonatiuh Guillen, a former head of Mexico’s immigration agency, said the new system could succeed in persuading migrants to desist from the trip to the U.S. border. “But it requires political will that you’d have to develop among various countries,” he said.
There are still many wild cards involving the policy. One is whether it will survive court challenges. On Thursday, a federal judge in Florida, T. Kent Wetherell II, temporarily blocked the Biden administration from releasing some migrants without a court date, a tactic intended to alleviate overcrowding.
On Saturday, Wetherell denied a Justice Department request to pause his ruling while the more extended appeals process plays out, calling the petition “borderline frivolous.” Justice Department officials are expected to make a similar emergency request in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
Reyes Mata III in El Paso, and Perry Stein, Gabriela Martinez, Nick Miroff and Silvia Foster-Frau in Washington contributed to this report.