Confusion at US-Mexico border as Title 42 migrant restrictions expire

The pandemic-related asylum restrictions known as Title 42 have expired, causing chaos at the US-Mexico border

As the US lifts Covid-era immigration restrictions, thousands of migrants have gathered at its Mexican border causing chaos and uncertainty for those hoping to cross through safely.

Known as Title 42, the policy had blocked those fleeing political and economic crises from the right to claim asylum in the US since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The end of the policy, which expired at midnight on Thursday, sent migrants racing to enter the United States before the new restrictions set in.

"It's going to be chaotic for a while," US president Joe Biden admitted earlier this week.

At Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, in Texas, families entered the river in an attempt to cross the border. Credit: AP

Migrants, including children, in northern Mexico paced along the border strung with razor wire and bolstered by troops, unsure of where to go or what to do next.

Others settled into shelters, determined to secure an asylum appointment that can take months to schedule online.

At Matamoros, across the Rio Grande river from Brownsville, in Texas, families hesitated only briefly as the asylum restrictions shifted before entering the water, holding mobile phones to light their way.

In a bid to stop the chaos, US authorities shouted for the migrants to turn back.

“Be careful with the children,” one official shouted through a megaphone. “It is especially dangerous for the children.”

The South Texas counties of Cameron and Hidalgo issued disaster declarations ahead of the midnight expiration to help free up state and federal resources.

Migrants wait between two border walls to apply for asylum in San Diego. Credit: AP

US troops, agents, and other federal workers have been deployed to the southern border to help handle a possible crush.

“We’re boarding up like there were a hurricane coming,” Victor Treviño, the mayor of Laredo, Texas, told CNN Thursday evening.

Over the last two days, more than 10,000 migrants daily were taken into custody, US border authorities reported, marking a record for daily encounters and continuing an upward trend in border arrests.

And about 155,000 migrants were estimated to be in shelters and on streets across northern Mexican states bordering the US, a source familiar with federal estimates said this week.

Mayor Treviño told CNN he is worried for migrants’ safety, adding that Laredo does not have a permanent pediatric intensive care unit.

“I don’t want to see any child get gravely ill and not be able to treat them,” he said.

A migrant's baby is carried in a suitcase across the Rio Grande river from Matamoros, Mexico. Credit: AP

What is Title 42, and what’s next for migrants to the US?

Title 42 is the name of an emergency health authority. It’s a holdover from the Trump administration and it began in March 2020.

The authority allowed US officials to turn away migrants who came to the US-Mexico border on the grounds of preventing the spread of Covid-19.

Before that, migrants could cross illegally, ask for asylum and be allowed into the US to be screened, and then often released to wait out their immigration cases.

Under Title 42, migrants were returned back over the border and denied the right to seek asylum.

Since then, US officials have turned away migrants more than 2.8 million times, although families and children travelling alone were exempt.

But there were no real consequences when someone illegally crossed the border.

Migrants arrive to the Mexican side of the bank of the Rio Grande river, with plans to cross to the US. Credit: AP

This meant migrants were able to try again and again to cross, on the off chance that they would eventually be successful.

President Biden initially kept Title 42 in place after he took office, then tried to end its use in 2022.

Republicans sued, arguing that the restrictions were necessary border security and the courts decided to keep the rules in place.

But the Biden administration announced in January that it was ending national Covid-19 emergencies, and therefore also the border restrictions.

Biden has said the new changes are necessary, in part because Congress has passed no immigration reform in decades.

What happens next?

The Title 42 restrictions lifted at midnight, meaning from Friday, May 12, there is a series of new policies that crack down on illegal crossings.

The Biden administration said it's trying to stop people from paying smuggling operations to make a dangerous and often deadly journey.

A a result, there will now be strict consequences.

Migrants will be screened to determine whether they have a credible fear of persecution in their homeland.

The Biden administration is now turning away anyone seeking asylum who didn’t first seek protection in a country they traveled through, or first applied online.

This is a version of a Trump administration policy that was overturned by the courts, so it’s not clear whether this restriction will hold up. A lawsuit is expected.

Anyone caught crossing illegally will not be allowed to return for five years, and they can face criminal prosecution if they do.

Families crossing the border illegally will be subject to curfews, and the head of household will have to wear an ankle monitoring bracelet.

Immigration officials will try to determine within 30 days whether a family can stay in the US or be deported, usually that process would take years.

The US has said it will accept up to 30,000 people per month from Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba as long as they come by air, have a sponsor, and apply online first.

The government will also allow up to 100,000 people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras if they have family in the US and apply online.

Other migrants may be allowed in if they apply via an app - which currently allows 740 people per day, and which is set to increase to 1,000 per day.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.