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As the end of Title 42 nears, a look at what the controversial border policy has meant in the Big Bend

In late May, the federal government will end the controversial public health policy known as Title 42, which has allowed officials to rapidly expel nearly all migrants and asylum seekers who’ve come to the border since the beginning of the pandemic. Immigration and customs officials are preparing for a possible increase in asylum seekers, though it’s unclear exactly what the policy shift will mean for the Big Bend region, and Presidio’s mayor says it’s a welcome change.

By Annie Rosenthal

On May 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will end the controversial public health policy known as Title 42. The policy –– a previously obscure clause in a 1944 public health law –– has allowed the federal government to expel nearly all migrants and asylum seekers who’ve come to the border since the beginning of the pandemic. Now, the CDC says COVID-19 risk is low enough in much of the country that the policy is no longer necessary.

Human rights groups like the ACLU have long opposed Title 42, arguing that the federal government is co-opting the pandemic to illegally deny people fleeing violence the right to seek asylum, which is protected under U.S. and international law. Gov. Greg Abbott, on the other hand, has strongly criticized the decision to end the policy, saying it will lead to an increase in migration that will overwhelm law enforcement.

All Things Considered host Travis Bubenik spoke with border reporter Annie Rosenthal about what Title 42 has looked like in the Big Bend region over the past two years, and what its end could mean for the region. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

On how the policy has played out in the Big Bend

The Big Bend Border Patrol Sector sees fewer “encounters” –– including apprehensions and attempts to seek asylum –– than any other sector on the border. Since the beginning of 2020, CBP has carried out 50,000 Title 42 expulsions in this sector –– as compared to nearly 400,000 in the Rio Grande Valley Sector.

But those Title 42 expulsions make up more than 80% of the CBP “encounters” in the Big Bend Sector during the same period –– meaning that the vast majority of times that someone has been apprehended by Border Patrol or come to the border hoping to seek asylum in this sector, they’ve been immediately sent back to Mexico.

That process is much faster than either formally deporting someone or processing their request for asylum, as CBP would do if the order weren’t in place. But as the agency has explained, it’s also likely contributed to a big increase in the number of repeat crossings. More than one in four encounters along the border since Title 42 went into place has involved someone who was crossing for at least the second time. In 2019, by comparison, the recidivism rate was seven percent.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, says that’s because the expulsion process incentivizes repeat crossings: Title 42 expulsions don’t come with the same potential legal consequences as deportations, and leave Central Americans close to the border in Mexico rather than sending them back to their home countries. And under the policy, many would-be asylum seekers may not see a legal path to entering the country.

“For many people, simply sending them back to Mexico leaves them more desperate than they would be otherwise. If they are not Mexican, they may be thousands of miles from home with increasingly fewer resources, and at risk of falling prey to the cartels who often police those regions,” he said. “And so many people feel that after they've been sent back to Mexico, their best option for safety is to make another crossing attempt.”

On how local politicians are responding to the end of the policy

“Expelling credible refugees and asylum seekers is un-American. Lifting Title 42 is the right thing to do,” State Sen. César Blanco told Marfa Public Radio in a statement. He called on the federal government to do more to help border communities respond to a possible influx of migrants and asylum seekers –– but said he didn’t agree with the new measures that Gov. Abbott put in place, including bussing migrants to D.C. and amping up inspections of commercial vehicles entering Texas from Mexico.

In Presidio, Mayor John Ferguson told Marfa Public Radio he feels strongly that ending Title 42 is the right move, and encouraged Presidio residents to have compassion for people fleeing violence in Central America.

“I'm going to call it an inconvenience on our part here in the United States, here on the border, to see, you know, maybe large numbers of people coming into our country,” he said. “But my goodness, if that's all it is for us, put the shoe on the other foot for the people who are actually trying to do something to protect themselves and their families.”

Mayor Ferguson said he’d met with CBP and offered the city’s help in responding to a possible increase in asylum seekers entering Presidio. There’s not currently a migrant shelter in Presidio, but Ferguson said he plans to talk to the city council about the possibility of using either the local activity center or a church to house people if needed.

On what the policy change could look like in Presidio

In a statement on April 4, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said that the agency does expect to see an increase in “encounters” along the border generally following the end of Title 42.

“There are a significant number of individuals who were unable to access the asylum system for the past two years, and who may decide that now is the time to come,” Magnus said. The statement said that CBP plans to shift personnel to the border and add new short-term facilities to prevent overcrowding, among other measures to address a possible influx of asylum seekers.

It’s unclear if those changes will apply to the Presidio port of entry, which, again, has historically seen much lower numbers of encounters than most other ports on the border. A spokesperson for the CBP’s Big Bend Sector declined to comment on what the policy change will mean locally, and the national press office did not provide specifics. But Ferguson said local representatives of CBP told him they’re trying to get ready for an increase.

“They are doing their very best to be prepared for any eventuality in this regard, and certainly not just hoping that the numbers are small,” he said. “It's better to have that preparation and maybe not need it than the contrary.”

Pastor Jose Medrano, who runs a migrant shelter in Ojinaga, said Wednesday that he was housing about 35 people, several of whom had previously been expelled under Title 42. He said some of them are from Central America and do hope to seek asylum in the U.S.

On local reactions to Gov. Abbott’s increased vehicle inspections at the border

One of the governor’s most controversial responses to the decision to lift Title 42 was his directive to the state Department of Public Safety to inspect nearly all commercial vehicles entering Texas from Mexico. Abbott faced harsh criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike this week as the state troopers’ searches caused lengthy delays and sparked protests at ports of entry.

The Department of Public Safety did not confirm whether or not inspections were happening in Presidio, but Mayor Ferguson said on Wednesday that he hadn’t seen or heard of any additional inspections at the port of entry. Neither had people involved in cross-border commerce in Presidio and Ojinaga.

Isela Nuñez, a local customs broker, said she would oppose the inspections if they did come, since much of the cargo that comes through Presidio is perishable and would be severely damaged by delays.

On Wednesday, the governor began ending the increased searches at individual ports after meeting with governors of the corresponding Mexican states –– including Chihuahua –– to hear more about their border security measures.

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.