On Thursday morning, atop the windy Paso del Norte Bridge that connects Ciudad Juárez and downtown El Paso, Tex., 30-year-old Magdalena tries to calm her nerves. It’s the closest she and her 10-year-old son have come to being allowed to enter the United States and she’s terrified of being turned away again, back to the shelters in Mexico where she and her son, who has a heart condition and needs medical attention, have been living for six months.
“This is very emotional for me,” she tells TIME in Spanish. “We’ve suffered a lot on our way here.”
Magdalena and her son migrated from Guatemala in September last year after facing threats of gang violence in their home country. Since then, they have attempted to cross into the U.S. twice. Both times, they were expelled back to Juárez by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials who cited the U.S.’s Title 42 order, a controversial public health measure that the government has used since March 2020 to conduct nearly 2 million expulsions. Title 42 allows CBP officials to immediately expel migrants, circumventing the normal trappings of immigration procedure, including asylum interviews.
It has been nearly a week since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that Title 42 expulsions will end on May 23. But Magdalena and her son, who are joined on the bridge by 15 other migrants, and four unaccompanied minor children, can’t wait that long, says Crystal Sandoval, a senior paralegal at the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization in El Paso that provides legal representation to immigrants. “These people cannot wait for weeks to see what our politicians do,” she tells TIME. “Their lives are at stake, these are very much life or death kinds of situations.”
The Administration’s decision last week to end Title 42 in May set in motion a series of cascading events—political opportunism, new legislation and lawsuits—and experts say its removal may help trigger a wave of new migration to the U.S.-Mexico border this spring. But for people already on the border, who have filled Mexico shelters to capacity, May 23 can’t come soon enough. Nearly 10,000 cases of violence against migrants expelled under Title 42 have been documented since the start of the Biden Administration alone, according to Human Rights First. Migrants in this story are identified by their first names only due to concerns for their protection.
For about seven months, Sandoval and others at Las Americas have helped vulnerable migrants find a way around Title 42, usually by appealing to the discretionary power granted to CBP officials to exempt particularly vulnerable migrants. Those gathered on the bridge on Thursday experienced gender-based violence, discrimination because of their nationality and language, or have dire medical needs that can’t be met in Juárez, Sandoval says. At least three times a week, Sandoval travels to the Paso del Norte bridge with a group of migrants, including those gathered this Thursday, who have been pre-approved for a Title 42 exemption. Today Sandoval is joined by a legal and administrative assistant from Las Americas’ Mexico office, and representatives from Kids in Need of Defense and the International Refugee Assistance Project who aid the unaccompanied minors.
At the Paso del Norte bridge, Sandoval speaks in Spanish to the group, offering advice while they wait for clearance to enter the U.S. Two CBP officers look on. “Answer their questions with ‘yes’ or ‘no,'” she says. “And if you don’t understand something it is okay to tell them you don’t understand.”
Then Sandoval spots Magdalena, petite and standing in the back of the crowd with her back to the bridge’s chain-link fence. “You look so nervous,” Sandoval tells Magdalena, who smiles back shyly and then looks away, turning to her son for an embrace. “Well I am,” she quietly says. Don, a 26-year-old migrant from Haiti, who is also seeking a Title 42 exemption along with his wife and almost 2-year-old daughter, interjects. “We’re all nervous,” he says, smiling at Magdalena. Then he points to his daughter, who is playing with her parent’s suitcases. “Look at her, she isn’t nervous,” Don says, easing the tension. “As long as she has milk, she’s fine.” The crowd laughs.
Thousands of miles away from this small group of migrants waiting to cross into the U.S., conservative Democrats and Republicans in Washington are working to reverse the Biden Administration’s decision to end Title 42. On Wednesday, Republicans introduced a bill to codify the measure in statute until February 2025. A group of Republican and centrist Democratic Senators introduced another bill on Thursday that would call on the Biden Administration keep Title 42 expulsions in place until it creates a plan to prevent a wave of migration.
“I’ll continue pushing for transparency and accountability from the Administration to help secure the border, keep Arizona communities safe, and ensure migrants are treated fairly and humanely,” Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, one of the bill’s authors, said in a public statement.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last week that it is preparing for an influx of migration after Title 42 ends. The Department is preparing for up to 18,000 encounters per day. By comparison, there were 164,973 encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border in the entire month of February, according to CBP’s most recent data. It is also sending more official personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border to aid in processing and is ramping up COVID-19 mitigation measures and vaccinations. In March, the Administration announced it will make slight changes to asylum processing in an attempt to hasten decisions on asylum claims by granting asylum officers the authority to make decisions on some claims instead of the asylum claim making its way through the backlogged immigration court system.
But the future of Title 42 also depends on the political winds in the U.S. With November midterm elections approaching, U.S.-Mexico border policy will likely become a political bludgeon, the topic of searing attack ads and social media posts—a fate that is sure to obscure the measure’s impact on people like Magdalena, huddled on the bridge.
Sandoval and the rest of the organizers at Las Americas say they must take into account the uncertain futures of policies like Title 42. While the Biden Administration announced its end, it could very easily be revived, either by court order or another administration. After all, the Biden Administration ended another Trump-era measure, the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico,” last year, but not for long. Texas and Missouri sued the Administration, arguing that it didn’t follow proper procedure in ending MPP, and a court agreed. Now MPP is back in place.
On Monday, Republican Attorneys General in Arizona, Missouri, and Louisiana filed a lawsuit against the Biden Administration’s decision to end Title 42 on very similar grounds.
“Basically, every immigration policy that any President does from here forward, I think they should just expect to be sued,” says Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. “Because Congress has been unable to pass any significant immigration legislation…courts are in the process of telling the country what our immigration policy is. And it’s chaotic.”
Back on the Paso del Norte Bridge, a CBP officer begins calling out names. One by one, he asks each of the assembled migrants to enter the U.S. Magdalena is called first. She walks up quickly, almost running, grabbing her and her son’s only possessions, a backpack and a blue duffle bag.
When the CBP officer calls the names of a Haitian family, the parents scramble to pick up their bags as Sandoval helps and carries their three year-old son. The boy smiles in wonder at all the people and movement around him, and other pedestrians waiting in line are drawn to his joy. They wave at him while the migrants walk the rest of the length of the bridge into the CBP processing center.
At the front of the line, Magdalena clutches her son’s hand as she waits for CBP officials to review her papers. “I’m still so nervous,” she says, a hand clutching her chest, but this time, her face tells a different story. She’s smiling. After living in migrant shelters for six months, she can now look forward to reuniting with her husband, who migrated to the U.S. two years ago. She’s officially on U.S. soil, and this time, at least for the foreseeable future, she’ll be able stay.
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