It was a calm peaceful setting in Downtown El Paso on Thursday as Title 42, the immigration policy that for years kept migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S., expired.
There was little to no foot traffic at the Paso Del Norte bridge, and only around two dozen migrants remained outside Sacred Heart Church – a far cry from the thousands of people who had crowded on sidewalks outside the church in recent weeks.
The expected onslaught of migrants, for which local, state and federal officials were prepared for, did not happen in the El Paso-Juarez region.
The area outside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility on Oregon Street – where officials said more than 900 migrants turned themselves in to be processed by immigration authorities on Wednesday – was silent Thursday night.
Further east, officers with the Texas Department of Public Safety stood outside their black SUVs on the north side of the border gate 40, near Yarbrough Drive, while little activity took place beyond DPS vehicles coming and going.
Down the road on the U.S. side of gate 42, border patrol officers gathered, waiting for vans carrying migrants who had camped for days on a sliver of U.S. land on the south side of the border wall. A CBP official said around 1,000 migrants had been camped at the site Wednesday, but that number fell to between 300 and 400 by Thursday night.
Over the 48 hours preceding the end of Title 42 – which expired at 10 p.m. local time in El Paso – CBP had taken 1,500 migrants into custody in the El Paso sector, which includes El Paso and New Mexico.
It’s not clear how many migrants that immigration officials processed this week were released by authorities, but El Paso Border Patrol Sector Chief Scott Good said Wednesday that Border Patrol released “a high majority” of migrants who turned themselves in.
The number of migrants that immigration authorities encountered declined from 1,400 per day in April to 1,150 in May, according to CBP.
The Trump administration began expelling migrants crossing the border in the spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the globe, citing Title 42, a health code provision. The action prevented hundreds of thousands of migrants from making a claim for asylum in the United States, without any legal process.
In the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to end Title 42 as well as other controversial Trump administration border and immigration policies. His efforts to undo Title 42 restrictions after taking office were blocked by courts, and Biden began expanding the use of Title 42 for migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti.
But the end of Title 42 was essentially sealed earlier this year when the Biden administration announced that the pandemic public health emergency would end on May 11.
The number of migrants crossing the border into El Paso in recent weeks has grown steadily as the end of Title 42 neared.
Thousands of migrants entered without first surrendering to the Border Patrol and requesting asylum, similar to the situation that unfolded in the late fall and early winter of 2022 in El Paso. That meant that the migrants lacked Border Patrol paperwork necessary to access many shelters in El Paso, or take buses or planes out of the city.
Those migrants began congregating outside at two locations in South El Paso: near Sacred Heart Catholic Church and outside the Opportunity Center homeless shelter.
Earlier this week, as the number of migrants on the streets of South El Paso neared 2,500, U.S. Customs and Border Protection made an offer: turn themselves in, with a commitment that they’d likely be allowed to stay in the United States while immigration courts considered their cases. Many of the migrants in the encampments surrendered and others moved on, quickly thinning out the crowds in South El Paso.
Government officials and nongovernmental organizations also spent the week preparing more shelter space for migrants expected to cross after the end of Title 42.
The Biden administration also implemented new rules that will make it more difficult for migrants to seek asylum if they cross between ports of entry without using a U.S. government app to make an appointment to begin an asylum claim. Critics said the policy was a violation of federal law on asylum, and promised court challenges.