Tighter US migration controls keep illegal border crossings at a 2-year low – for now

El Paso, Texas – Illegal border crossings along the US southern border remained at a two-year low for the second straight month in February, highlighting the dip in tightening policies enacted by President Biden this year to the unprecedented migration flows recorded since he took office.

The US Border Patrol recorded around 130,000 arrests of migrants illegally crossing the southern border in February, practically the same level as in January, when detected illegal entries fell 40% from a record breaking in December, according to internal federal data from CBS News.

For the first time since Mr. Biden took office, border patrol officers recorded no spike in migrant arrests in February, as migration flows poured into the US southern border typically increased before the spring peak.

While migrant fears remain at historically high levels and are expected to rise sharply in May, the two-year low marks a dramatic change from the situation along the U.S.-Mexico border just two months ago, when a massive spike in illegal migration weighed on federal officials and municipal funds.

“When new policies are announced, there’s usually a little pause as people try to understand what the policies might mean for them,” said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Institute for Migration Policy, which oversaw the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service in the 1990s. “But this is more than a temporary hiatus.”

As part of his recent crackdown on migration, Mr. Biden expanded the scope of a pandemic-related border restriction known as Title 42, which entitles migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to be deported to Mexico if they enter the US illegally. His government also plans to replace Title 42, which expires May 11, with a blanket asylum restrictions that would allow the government to more quickly deport migrants who do not seek refuge in other countries on their way to the US

Those tougher rules have been paired with the expansion of a program that allows up to 30,000 American-sponsored migrants to legally fly to the United States each month, as well as a mobile app that gives hundreds of asylum-seekers the chance to enter the country alongside an official Application to apply for border crossings daily.

In December, the Border Patrol recorded 222,000 migrant arrivals, a record high. The influx of illegal crossings of migrants from Nicaragua and Cuba has presented the Texas border city of El Paso with an unprecedented ordeal, with hundreds of migrants sleeping on city streets and local officials forced to convert hotels, a convention center and a middle school into emergency shelters.

But since Mr. Biden unveiled his new migration strategy in January, El Paso’s makeshift shelters have closed and migrants are no longer stranded outside a local church and the city’s Greyhound bus station. Incidents of migrants crossing El Paso’s busy freeways have also largely stopped, city officials said.

“It will create an incentive for legal migration. So as long as they’re following the process, they can come in, and it’s the right way to do it,” Mario D’Agostino, El Paso’s assistant city manager, told CBS News The New Federal Strategy. “We’re seeing that right now. That’s why we’re seeing low numbers.”

El Paso’s non-governmental shelters, run by faith groups and non-profit organizations, are also no longer severely overcrowded. A shelter for up to 85 parents and children near downtown El Paso housed just three families this week, down from over 140 migrants in December. A nearby gym-turned-housing facility is now accepting single adults in addition to families, after turning them down in December due to lack of space.

A patch of land between the border barriers in El Paso and the sheer concrete walls of the Rio Grande Canal is no longer a place where hundreds of migrants line up each day to seek asylum. Instead, the area was fortified with fences, reams of barbed wire, and Humvees stationed by the Texas National Guard

A migrant family in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, looks out at the US border near El Paso, Texas, now fortified with fences, reams of barbed wire and Texas National Guard Humvees.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez / CBS News

In Yuma, Arizona, a small border town that saw the fourth-highest migrant traffic nationwide last year, local officials have also reported a sharp drop in migrant arrivals. Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls said the number of daily arrivals there had dropped to about 400, or a third of December’s illegal crossings.

“The numbers are more manageable now,” Nicholls, a Republican, told CBS News, noting that the high number of migrant crossings near Yuma over the past year is draining local resources and negatively impacting businesses and communities tourism industry of the city.

But Nicholls expressed concern that migration could pick up again once Title 42 is lifted and said the federal government should send more resources and staff to help border communities. He noted that Yuma has only one bus route and no formal systems for boarding and housing migrants. Federal officials have warned that the number of migrants arriving each day could rise to 13,000 once Title 42 ends unless major policy changes are made.

While Mr Biden’s new strategy has so far appeared to reduce the number of illegal crossings, advocates for asylum seekers said the effort came at an unacceptable human cost.

Ruben Garcia, who runs House of Annunciation, a network of shelters in El Paso, said migrants deported by the US are at risk of harassment by criminal groups in Ciudad Juárez, one of Mexico’s most violent cities.

“How do you justify what is happening among the refugees in Mexico? How do you justify that?” asked Garcia. “That is absolutely unacceptable.”

Garcia said the recent federal policy changes also go against Mr Biden’s campaign promises to dismantle former President Donald Trump’s immigration legacy and to humanely manage migration. Instead, Garcia said, Mr. Biden is embracing asylum restrictions like Title 42 and has “become chief distributor.”

The legal migration routes Mr. Biden created have also come under fire from Republicans, who say he does not have the authority to accept large groups of migrants outside the visa system, and progressives, who say the programs are too limited.

Asylum seekers with appointments to enter the United States line up near a port of entry that connects Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. Other migrants without an appointment are waiting on the street.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez / CBS News

The sponsorship program is only open to migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, while the mobile app process for applying for U.S. entry, known as CBP One, has been criticized by proponents who say it is flawed and doesn’t have enough slots Meeting the high demand among migrants in Mexico.

Biden administration officials have dismissed allegations that their new effort to manage migration resembles Trump administration policies.

The strategy, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an appearance last week, is designed to “liberate [migrants] out of the clutches of the smuggling organizations that cause so much death and tragedy” by offering them legal avenues to enter the United States

Mayorkas pointed out that around 740 asylum seekers along the southern border are treated every day as part of the CBP One process. In addition, as of mid-February, the sponsorship program has allowed 22,000 Venezuelans, 7,800 Cubans, 5,100 Haitians and 1,600 Nicaraguans to enter the United States, DHS statistics show.

In Ciudad Juárez, migrants across the city are scrambling to secure a coveted CBP One appointment. At a shelter in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Mexican families fleeing violence in Michoacán state said they had been trying for weeks, even months, to get an appointment. A group of Venezuelan migrants being fed by religious volunteers at the city’s cathedral said they were given an appointment but it was scheduled hundreds of miles away across the Texas border.

Near the port of entry, where dozens of migrants are processed each morning under the CBP One program, three Venezuelan cousins ​​said they traveled there hoping to improve their chances of getting an appointment.

One of the cousins, Daniela Moreno, a 19-year-old mother who traversed seven countries and Panama’s treacherous Darien jungle to reach Mexico, said she’s been trying to get an appointment for two months. The app, she said, often crashes, and the indefinite wait has left her and her 2-year-old daughter stranded in Ciudad Juárez.

“Mexico is very unsafe, especially for women,” she said. “I prefer traversing the jungle back and forth than entering Mexico.”

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