Biden’s El Paso visit leaves migrants wondering what comes next

Protesters take to the streets to call for immigration reform and an end to the Title 42 pandemic-era policy used to turn asylum seekers away

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A small but determined group of protesters marched through downtown El Paso, Texas, on Saturday ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit.

Chanting “we want immigration reform,” they filed from a small concrete park nestled in the shadow of the rust-coloured fence separating the US from Mexico to a church where hundreds of migrants — many of whom do not have permission to be in America — have camped out as they try to navigate the asylum process.

As the protesters approached the Sacred Heart Church, a group of migrants, many waving American flags and some with tears in their eyes, shouted and clapped in thanks.

Many were reluctant to stray more than a few metres from the church, where they had claimed sanctuary, for fear US immigration agents might arrest them.

Among the marchers was a county commissioner and members of the advocacy group Border Network for Human Rights. They are calling on Mr Biden to rescind his expansion of Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that lets the US Border Patrol turn asylum seekers away.

The programme was enacted as a health emergency policy under the Trump administration but has also been used by the Biden government to block asylum seekers hoping to enter the US.

Mr Biden announced a new, multifaceted approach to immigration along the southern border on Thursday, which in part would include an expansion of Title 42 measures.

Under the new guidelines, migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti will have an expanded legal pathway to apply for entry into the US if they pass background checks and have a financial sponsor in America.

A Venezuelan sent back to Mexico by the US clings to the fence of the National Institute of Migration building in Ciudad Juarez. Reuters

But to be eligible to apply, the migrants must do so from their home country.

Migrants caught trying to enter the US illegally will not be eligible for the new parole programme and will be deported to Mexico.

A similar framework already exists for migrants from Venezuela.

Many are fleeing economic hardship and political instability in their home countries.

“The actions we're announcing today will make things better … but will not fix the border problem completely,” Mr Biden said. “There's more that has to be done.”

Immigration advocates fear the new policy will only make things worse.

Texas National Guard vehicles along the US-Mexico border in downtown in El Paso. Reuters

“The solutions that he put forward are not solutions,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights. “The proposed online system didn't even work for the Venezuelans.”

A record 2.4 million migrants crossed into the US during the last fiscal year, which ended in September, overwhelming the Border Patrol.

El Paso, which neighbours the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, has received the bulk of recent migrants, forcing it to declare a state of emergency in December.

Shelters have been overflowing, with many migrants now sleeping on the streets.

Inside a welcome centre for the homeless just a few hundred metres from Mexico, Ender Gonzalez curls under an American Red Cross blanket.

Mr Gonzales, 28, walked for five months with his sister and her family to get here from his home in Venezuela, a journey that took them through the perilous jungles of the Darien Gap.

“It was really tough. There were kids crying, we were hungry,” he said.

It is unclear how Mr Biden’s new policies will affect migrants like Mr Gonzales, who are already in the US but still trying to seek asylum.

“All I can do is wait,” he tells The National.

Mr Garcia fears that many of the migrants in El Paso will eventually be deported.

“I'm afraid that based on the guidelines that were announced, the only future for them is expulsion,” he adds.

On Sunday, Mr Biden is due to spend several hours in this working-class city of nearly 700,000 people, nestled between the jagged peaks of the Franklin Mountains.

“It's great that he's coming,” says David Stout, an El Paso County commissioner.

Mr Stout says he is grateful for all of the federal assistance that El Paso received during the migrant crisis, but adds that it is time to end Title 42.

“Title 42, I feel, is a failed policy. It should not have been put in place in the first place,” he says.

Mr Biden has openly acknowledged that he does not like the policy either, but seems to have been unable to find a better solution.

A migrant seeking asylum in the US waits in Rio Bravo at the border fence between Mexico and America. Reuters
Updated: January 13, 2023, 9:15 AM