EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Tensions rose Tuesday at the U.S. border with Mexico over the future of restrictions on asylum seekers as the Supreme Court issued a temporary order to uphold limits on pandemic-era migrants.
Conservative-leaning states were given a reprieve — though it may be short-lived — as they push for enforcement of a measure that would allow officials to deport many but not all asylum seekers. In a last-ditch written appeal to the Supreme Court, they argued that increased numbers of migrants would take a toll on public services such as law enforcement and healthcare and warned of an “unprecedented disaster” on the southern border.
Chief Justice John Roberts granted a stay pending further injunction and asked President Joe Biden’s administration to respond by 5 p.m. Tuesday. That’s just hours before the restrictions expire on Wednesday.
The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for maintaining border security, acknowledged Roberts’ order — also saying the agency would continue “preparations to administer the border in a safe, orderly and humane manner when it takes title.” 42 public health order is lifted. ”
Migrants have been denied the right to seek asylum under U.S. and international law 2.5 million times since March 2020 on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19 under a public health rule called Title 42.
The decision on what comes next is down to the wire as pressure builds in communities along both sides of the southwestern US border.
In El Paso, Democratic mayor Oscar Leeser warned Monday that cross-border shelters in Ciudad Juárez are packed with an estimated 20,000 migrants willing to enter the U.S.
Despite the court’s stay on Monday, the city of El Paso scrambled to expand its capacity to accommodate more migrants by converting large buildings into shelters as the Red Cross brings in 10,000 cots.
Local officials also say they hope to ease pressure on local shelters by chartering buses to other major cities in Texas or nearby states, bringing migrants one step closer to relatives and sponsors in partnership with nonprofits.
“We will remain prepared for whatever is coming,” Leeser said.
At a church-affiliated shelter a few blocks from the border, migrants, including women and children, lined up early Monday afternoon hoping to secure a bed for the night, accepting food donations from a succession of cars with gifts. Police and municipal garbage collectors arrived to remove abandoned blankets and discarded belongings.
Jose Natera, a 48-year-old handyman from the Venezuelan city of Guaicaipuro, said he traveled three months to reach El Paso, sometimes on foot, with no money or sponsors to take him further.
“I have to stop here until I can get a ticket,” he said.
El Paso residents Roberto Lujan and Daniela Centeno handed out fruit, Hostess cakes, soda and chips to crowds on a street corner.
“I have to do it,” says Lujan, a 39-year-old construction worker. “I have kids and I know the struggle.”
Conservative-leaning states have argued that lifting Title 42 will lead to a surge of migrants into their states and take a toll on government services such as health care or law enforcement. They also argue that the federal government has no plan to deal with an increase in migrants — while in Washington, Republicans are poised to take control of the House and make immigration a key issue.
Biden administration officials said they are sending more resources to the southern border in preparation for the end of Title 42. That includes more border patrol processing coordinators, increased surveillance and heightened security at ports of entry.
About 23,000 agents are currently deployed to the southern border, according to the White House.
Immigration advocates have said the Title 42 restrictions, imposed under provisions of a 1944 health law, go against U.S. and international obligations to people fleeing to the U.S. to escape persecution — and that the pretense has become obsolete as the improving treatments for the coronavirus. They filed a lawsuit to end the use of Title 42; a federal judge in November sided with them and set the December 21 deadline.
El Paso Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz expressed concern Monday that the stay would deter migrants who have no choice but to flee their homes from even pleading for protection in the US after years of pent-up need.
“Now what happens to all those on the way?” he said.
Title 42 restrictions apply to all nationalities, but have dropped disproportionately for those of countries Mexico has agreed to take back: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and, more recently, Venezuela, in addition to Mexico.
Santana reported from Washington, DC, and Juan Lozano contributed to this report from Houston.