US braces for migration surge with thousands of forces at border
The United States on Wednesday was readying its response to an expected surge of migrants seeking to enter, with officials saying 24,000 law enforcement personnel have been deployed to the Mexican border.
President Joe Biden has acknowledged that the border will be "chaotic for a while" with the expiration of Covid pandemic rules that had forbidden virtually all asylum claims there.
Tens of thousands of people are waiting at crossing points for the end of so-called Title 42 overnight Thursday into Friday, despite the Biden administration vowing to enforce the border vigorously.
A senior administration official said that 24,000 border police and 1,100 border processing personnel have been deployed, double the number a year ago.
The Pentagon has also been sending 1,500 extra troops to the border to reinforce 2,500 already in place.
Thousands of people, largely from Central America and Haiti as well as Venezuela, have been seeking to enter the world's wealthiest country as they flee poverty, violence and drought exacerbated by climate change.
The crossings have become a political flashpoint in the United States, with the rival Republican Party under Donald Trump championing stringent anti-immigration measures.
Trump as president used Title 42, officially a public health measure, as a blunt tool to block migrants, but both the United States and World Health Organization say the emergency phase of the pandemic is over.
A group of Republican senators on Wednesday accused the Biden administration of responding too slowly and attacked the decision to stop Trump's signature proposal of a border wall.
"The administration has failed to acknowledge the crisis at our border, and is recognizing in the 11th hour that the upcoming removal of Title 42 authorities, and the subsequent surge in border crossings that is predicted, will have disastrous effects on the security of our nation," said a letter led by Senator Mitt Romney to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
- 'Ludicrous' -
The administration counters that it has expelled a record number of migrants thanks to coordination with other countries, with an official saying that more than three million people have been removed over the past two and a half years.
The Biden administration has also insisted that it will take a more humane approach, including not taking children away from their parents -- one of the most controversial measures under Trump.
But the administration said Wednesday it had finalized a rule that anyone who does not use legal pathways to enter the United States will be considered ineligible and subject to removal, although there remains an exception if a person can prove a "reasonable fear" of torture upon their return.
Immigrant advocates denounced the rule as breaking decades of US law and international agreements that allow vulnerable people to apply for asylum.
"Forcing persecuted people to first seek protection in countries with no functioning asylum systems is as ludicrous as it is life-threatening," said Lee Williams, chief programs officer at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a faith-based group that works with asylum seekers.
- 'I couldn't wait any longer' -
Hundreds of migrants who had already crossed into the United States -- many of them Venezuelans -- were queueing in El Paso, Texas, to hand themselves in to border patrol agents.
Those fleeing the dysfunctional South American country previously had a carve-out from the Title 42 rules, and were still able to claim asylum.
They fear that once the measure lapses, they will be stuck in Mexico, unable to reverse the difficult journey back to a hostile homeland, and living without money at the mercy of human traffickers.
"I waited for four months trying to lodge my request, but I was ignored," said Gleidys Losada.
"All the people I knew were crossing through the gaps. I was left behind, and I decided I couldn't wait any longer."
Several migrants told AFP that no upcoming border policy change will dissuade them from trying to make a new home in the United States.
"They can throw Title 42 and all these rules at us, but migration is not going to end. We are going to keep coming because we are hungry," said Eibor Tovar, a 34-year-old Venezuelan.
"When you are hungry, when you are repressed by a dictatorship, you do whatever it takes to seek a better life."