EL PASO, Texas – In the middle of the West Texas desert, a giant tent – larger than a football field – is pitched by the US Border Patrol as El Paso braces for a tidal wave human to cross the border into Mexico as soon as the Title 42 health policy comes to an end.
The makeshift facility northeast of downtown will serve as an overflow processing center when Title 42 expires — which could happen as soon as this week, depending on whether the Supreme Court hears a challenge from the Biden administration by 19 Republican-led states who want to keep the policy in place.
Border Patrol already has a central processing center in El Paso, but it won’t be able to keep up with demand after Title 42 – when up to 5,000 migrants a day are expected to enter the city.
“It’s going to get even worse before it gets better, and that’s what we’re preparing for,” El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said Friday. “That’s what I call the unknown.”
“As we know it [Border Patrol’s] CPC, central processing center, has a capacity of 1,400; we know their breaking point is 5,000,” El Paso City Deputy Manager Mario D’Agostino said in a town hall meeting the same day. “With this push, they know they won’t be able to contain it.”
El Paso officials previously said as many as 20,000 migrants were waiting in Mexico, hoping to enter the United States after Title 42 disappeared.
On Monday, fewer migrants were lining up on the Mexican side of the border compared to last week. Some of the lighter traffic was because Title 42 was still in effect — for now. Part of that was due to an additional app put in place by Texas officials.
Shipping containers forming a border barrier were set up by members of the Texas National Guard. The Texas Military Department also added three rows of accordion barbed wire near a popular border crossing in El Paso.
“They focus on deterrence. They are focused on sending a message that illegal crossings are not an option,” General Mayor Ronald “Win” Burkett said in a video. tweeted from the army of texas Official account of the ministry on Christmas Day. “You have to go to the POE [port of entry].”
Burkett noted that the department moved “400 people to El Paso, over 40 vehicles…in 72 hours.”
If and when Title 42 ends, migrants seeking asylum in the United States will have to turn themselves into American officials at the Paso Del Norte International Bridge in El Paso.
On Monday, 400 armed members of the Texas National Guard and their Humvees were stationed on either side of this bridge, hoping to funnel migrants onto the span and avoid potential chaos if migrants crossed the Rio Grande, which serves as the international border between the United States and Mexico.
Despite tougher law enforcement, thousands of migrants are already in El Paso, forcing the city of nearly 680,000 people to turn its convention center into a migrant haven.
Currently, the convention center is configured to accommodate 1,000 migrants and an additional 1,000 beds can be added if needed. Two vacant colleges have also been turned into shelters, each capable of accommodating at least 1,500 people.
Meanwhile, the city’s mayor said the American Red Cross plans to be in El Paso until Jan. 31 distributing medical supplies, clothing and food.
Officials say the city must improvise in the absence of help from the nearby military post of Fort Bliss, where they hoped some migrants could be housed. So far, there is no indication that the base will be open.
“This is a request made by [Congresswoman Veronica Escobar] and at this point they still haven’t given us access to that,” Leeser said. “There had been quite a few deployments to Fort Bliss at that time and that kind of changes what they can and can’t do on federal land.
Title 42 has been used to deny entry to millions of asylum-seeking migrants since its implementation in March 2020. In the 12 months ending September 30, a record 2.4 million people illegally crossed the southern border of the United States. About 40% of them were deported to Mexico under Title 42.
Once migrants are taken into custody, they are processed by border patrol. A record is made of their illegal entry, their names are subjected to criminal background checks and biometrics are taken. Those who make legitimate asylum claims are eventually released in the United States. Those who do not meet the conditions required to start the asylum procedure are deported to their country of origin or deported to Mexico.
Title 42 was set to end Dec. 21 after an order from a DC federal judge. Prior to this date, El Paso and other towns along the border began to see immigrants pour into the country.
In El Paso, shelters were overwhelmed as asylum seekers were released back into the community. As migrants slept on the streets of downtown El Paso, fears grew that freezing temperatures could lead to deaths, prompting the city of El Paso to declare a disaster and call for help of the state and the federal government.
As time ticked away, Texas and 18 other states asked the Supreme Court to intervene. The High Court has issued a stay to keep Title 42 in place for the time being, but has yet to announce its end.
The Biden administration has asked the High Court to set a new Title 42 expiration date of midnight on the second working day after ordering the policy to be concluded – in a desperate bid to give authorities more time to prepare at impact.