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News / Nation & World

Uncertainty grips U.S.-Mexico border in early days of Biden executive order

By Lautaro Grinspan, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published: June 12, 2024, 8:20am

EL PASO, Texas — A 24-year-old mother from Venezuela called it “destiny” that she and her twin daughters had made it into the U.S. just hours before new restrictions were enacted at the border.

Clad in a purple tracksuit, Jenny Giro breastfed her daughters while sitting on the ground of a bustling migrant shelter in the border town of El Paso, Texas.

The timing of the trio’s illegal entry into the U.S. was fortuitous: They crossed the border and turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents at 9 a.m. on June 4, shortly before the Biden administration declared an emergency at the border and issued an executive order restricting asylum protections.

“I was shocked when I found out (about the executive order) because I had no idea that was going to happen,” Giro told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was destiny that I came when I did.”

Within hours of her arrival, Giro was processed by border officials, outfitted with an ankle monitor, and released. By Friday, the 24-year-old was resting at the El Paso shelter awaiting a free bus ride northward, courtesy of the Texas state government.

Representatives from local U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials wouldn’t answer questions on how much the new executive order had impacted migration flows in this sector of the border, if at all, in its first days of implementation. The agency only updates its publicly available database of migrant apprehensions on a monthly basis.

The leadership of the Sacred Heart Church migrant shelter, whose operations are among those most likely to immediately notice changes in border policy, said it could take several weeks for the full extent of the executive order’s impact to come into focus.

The new policy is the most restrictive border rule instituted by President Biden, choking off access to asylum application process when illegal border crossings reach 2,500 a day. It ends when they average below 1,500 for a week straight. Crossings have not been that low since July 2020.

Asylum is a humanitarian protection for people who face certain types of persecution or torture in their home countries, and it allows people to remain in the U.S. permanently.

Migrants are still eligible for asylum if they show “exceptionally compelling circumstances” exist, such as a health emergency or an imminent risk of harm. Exceptions are also extended to unaccompanied children and victims of human trafficking.

The aim of Biden’s executive order is to boost quick deportations of migrants who illegally cross the border — a sanction that comes with a five-year ban on reentering the country.

Immigration advocates and lawyers said the policy change was unlikely to migrants from attempting to enter the country, at least in the short-term. Many would-be border crossers are already on their journey to the border — a lengthy path through Central America and Mexico. Migrants interviewed by the AJC at the Sacred Heart Church shelter said it took them months to reach the southern border from their home. And experts on the ground said that as long as the border isn’t completely shut down — something this new executive order won’t bring about — word will spread that there is still a possibility of entering the U.S.

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“There’s always going to be hope,” said Imelda Maynard, an attorney at Estrella Del Paso Legal Aid, speaking to a group of journalists Friday.

Limited detention and deportation capacity has curtailed the immediate impact of the new executive order. According to reporting from the Associated Press, the administration has not scheduled more deportation flights to ramp up the number of migrants returned to their home countries under the new border measure. The U.S. can only deport a handful of nationalities across the southern border to Mexico. Most migrants must be flown back to their country of origin.

At the Sacred Heart Church shelter, the number of new migrant admissions had already been trending downward. An average of about 90 people are spending the night on the shelter’s foldable mats, compared to a capacity of 120. That’s a far cry from December 2023, when shelter director Michael DeBruhl said close to 1,000 people lined up outside his facility to seek assistance. That month, illegal entries to the U.S. reached an all-time high, with crossings averaging more than 8,300 daily.

DeBruhl, a former Border Patrol agent, said he ascribed the change to stepped-up enforcement of irregular migration within Mexico.

Antonio Bolivar, a 35-year-old Venezuelan migrant at Sacred Heart, said he was deported three times back to Guatemala, Mexico’s neighbor to the south, while trying to make his way up to the U.S. with his wife and two children. He said his failed attempts to reach the U.S. tested his resolve, but his fourth attempt was successful. He came onto U.S. territory at the end of May. He said he was determined to keep trying to give his children a better future.

According to DeBruhl, it will likely take around a month for the dust to settle and the impact of the executive order to become clear, while both U.S. officials to the north and migrants and smugglers to the south assess what implementation looks like.

“The thing is that the Border Patrol is going to take the brunt of this executive order and that they will have to process everybody,” he said. “You’re going to have all these Border Patrol agents making these decisions, all these nuances, of a policy that’s just been implemented,” he said.

When Title 42, a pandemic-era policy to restrict border crossings expired in May 2023, the expected border surge took some time to materialize.

“So that may happen now. I mean, maybe we won’t know for a month or a few weeks (what’s going to happen). I think everybody has a tendency to kind of wait and see, on the south side,” DeBruhl said. “The last few days, we have actually seen no difference whatsoever.”

It didn’t take long for the new asylum restrictions to draw condemnation from immigrant community advocates, including in Georgia.

“The right to seek asylum from persecution is a fundamental human right. Any action on the part of this administration to prevent people fleeing persecution from seeking a safe haven through applying for asylum is reprehensible and must be strongly condemned,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal director of Project South, an Atlanta-based organization that advocates for detained immigrants, in a statement.

Gigi Pedraza, executive director of the Atlanta-based Latino Community Fund, echoed that sentiment.

The executive order “shows that immigrants once again are the first on the chopping board when it comes to political gain,” she said in a statement referencing the 2024 election. “We are disappointed to say the least.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said it plans to challenge Biden’s measures in court.

In El Paso, DeBruhl said the new asylum restrictions for those who enter illegally will likely push people to seek entry through an already oversubscribed online app known as CBP One, which awards 1,450 spots daily to legally cross into the U.S. at an official port of entry. The wait time for a CBP One appointment can take up to eight months, according to a May report by the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin.

Migrants can only start trying to book CBP One appointments when they get to northern Mexico.

“It’s hard to get appointments, and the journey is really difficult. So, let’s say they’ve been traveling for five months. They’ve gotten robbed, they’ve gotten beaten, they’ve gotten kidnapped. And then, they get an appointment for four months from now. There’s a lot of frustration,” DeBruhl said.

Antonio Bolivar, the Venezuelan migrant, considers himself lucky. He was able to get a CBP One appointment at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry, an eight-minute walk from the Sacred Heart shelter, after just a one-month wait time.

His plan is to take construction jobs in El Paso to make enough money to buy a bus or plane ticket to Tennessee, to meet acquaintances there. Because he entered the country legally through the app, he will have a work permit in hand in a few weeks, and he won’t have to fear deportation for at least two years.

Still, he said he feels for fellow Venezuelans whose opportunity to come to the U.S. might have become more limited because of the Biden executive order.

“There’s a certain sadness, no? I have friends, family members who were thinking about coming, and maybe they’ll have to wait,” he said.

This story was reported through an El Paso-based fellowship on U.S. immigration policy organized by Poynter, an institute for the professional development of journalists, with funding from the Catena Foundation, a private family foundation based in Colorado.

©2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visit at ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.