A record wave of illegal immigrants rushed America’s southern border Thursday as President Biden and his team resigned themselves to the chaos, admitting that with the expiration of the Title 42 pandemic expulsion authority they are powerless to stop the arrivals.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said it will take time to regain control, but for now, video and images from the border captured the scale of the bedlam, showing columns of people lined up to wade the Rio Grande or walk across the border as soon as Friday, when Title 42 will officially be gone.
Refusing to accept that situation, Republicans hurried legislation through the House that would stiffen enforcement and could deny millions of illegal immigrants the chance to claim a place in the U.S.
And Mr. Biden faced some last-minute legal challenges, including one that could derail plans to “parole” many of the new illegal arrivals, giving them a quick release in the hope that they can be corralled into coming back for deportation hearings eventually.
As a record number of people spread out from the border, communities across the country declared emergencies and cried for help.
In New York, Mayor Eric Adams weakened right-to-shelter laws to prevent city services from being overwhelmed by the newcomers.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her city had “reached a breaking point.” Denver said it’s seen a 10-fold increase in migrants arriving this week.
And things are about to get worse.
“Everyone knows we are days away from disaster,” U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said as he rallied Republicans to pass their border-security bill.
It cleared the House on a 219-213 vote, almost entirely along party lines.
The legislation would restart border-wall construction, add more Border Patrol agents, reel in the administration’s expansive and legally iffy use of “parole” to welcome unauthorized migrants, tighten the rules on claiming asylum, and push to end the practice of catch-and-release.
It would also mandate businesses use E-Verify, a system that checks to make sure new hires are authorized to work in the U.S.
The bill would make it easier for the U.S. to deny entry to illegal immigrant juveniles who show up at the border without a parent — known in government speak as Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC), and it tightens asylum rules to block migrants from using the asylum system as a loophole to gain a foothold here.
Rep. Chip Roy, Texas Republican, said the bill would force Mr. Biden to do an about-face.
“We are doing the job the president refuses to do,” he said.
But Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, called the GOP’s border security efforts “cruel,” “inhumane” and “xenophobic.”
Even as the debate raged in Washington, images from the southern border showed just how far removed lawmakers are from the chaos.
A video posted by the Center for Immigration Studies showed Texas National Guard troops using razor wire to plug a gap where migrants were swimming the Rio Grande and attempting to turn themselves in.
Fox News drone video showed acres of clothing and trash dumped on the side of the river by migrants who just made the crossing, and who were leaving the trappings of their journey — and in some cases their own identities — in the dust behind them.
The Border Patrol union said a small station in remote Arizona had a group of 700 migrants in custody Thursday afternoon, and more were coming.
In court, a senior Border Patrol official said the agency has arrested 10,000 illegal immigrants a day from Monday through Wednesday, and expect to reach 12,000 to 14,000 a day soon. That would obliterate previous records.
That official said they could have 45,000 people in custody by the end of May.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas insisted everything was going according to plan.
“We prepared for this moment for almost two years and our plan will deliver results. It will take time for those results to be fully realized, and it is essential that we all take this into account,” he said at the White House.
But he struggled to explain his flurry of last-minute moves, some of which seem half-baked.
Of 1,500 new troops to be deployed to the border, only 550 are in place. He envisions 100 welcome centers in Latin America designed to encourage people not to pay smugglers to reach the border, but none of them are now operational.
And his department only this week finalized a rule to tighten asylum claims, and was rushing to train officers how to apply it.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it will issue ankle bracelets to some migrants who are caught and released, and will impose a curfew on them.
Homeland Security said it is flying more deportation planes, including one to Cuba this week, in an effort to convince would-be migrants that they may be sent home.
Officials also pleaded with people not to come in the first place, launching a series of digital ads urging those in Latin America not to listen to the smugglers’ “lies.”
The problem for the administration is that those messages are drowned out by social media posts from those who have reached the U.S., seen by those still back in their home countries.
Title 42 was put in place by President Trump and allowed illegal border crossers to be quickly expelled. That denied many of them a chance to make claims of protection, such as asylum.
Critics said legitimate refugees were blocked. Supporters, though, pointed to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants posing as refugees who were denied a foothold.
Mr. Biden has been fighting to end Title 42 from his first months in office. Yet even with Title 42 in place, the border has been a mess under the current administration.
Customs and Border Protection has encountered more than 6 million unauthorized migrants since January 2021, and is now tracking record levels of fentanyl being smuggled in, and record numbers of people on the terrorism watchlist sneaking across.
Smuggling cartels are raking in record profits.
The Washington Times maintains a database tracking smuggling payments and it shows Mexican migrants paid as much as $16,000 per person to be smuggled in this month. Those from Central America can pay as much as $20,000. And those from further afield can pay even more.
Drug cartels that effectively control much of the territory just south of the U.S.-Mexico border take a “tax” from nearly every migrant.
President Trump, facing a surge in 2019, managed to solve it with the same toolset Mr. Biden has at his disposal.
But Mr. Biden says he doesn’t have the right tools for this current surge — at least not the ones he wants to use.
His approach has been less about derailing the flow of people and more aimed at trying to shape it. The goal, officials say, is to try to create avenues for migrants who don’t have a lawful basis for entering the U.S. to come anyway, but not have to pay smugglers and jump the border to do it.
Mr. Mayorkas has harnessed his “parole” power to promise he will let in those who pre-schedule appointments to cross. They would be let into the U.S. without lawful status, though they would have a chance to apply for status from here.
At the same time, he said, those that show up without going through parole or one of Mr. Mayorkas’ other options will be arrested and put into deportation proceedings. Some will be quickly ousted, while others will be released with the hope that they can eventually be coaxed to come back for immigration hearings and deportations.
The Border Patrol union said Mr. Mayorkas was lying.
On Twitter, it said no more than 31% of the illegal immigrants arrested were actually detained or removed. “All others released,” the union said.
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