Uncertainty as Covid-era US border rules expire
The United States bolted tough new immigration policies into place Friday, setting up an uncertain future for desperate migrants reaching its southern border as a top official expressed confidence the system will hold.
Tens of thousands of people were expected to try to cross into the United States in coming days after it lifted pandemic-era rules, hoping to escape the poverty and criminal gangs wracking their own countries in what the United Nations called an "unprecedented displacement crisis."
In the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Agustin Sortomi said he, his wife and two children had tried to surrender to US authorities but had been turned away.
"I don't know what to do," he told AFP. "We haven't realized our dream. Only God knows when we will."
President Joe Biden's administration has charted what it says is a strict path for anyone claiming refuge.
"We are seeing people arrive at our southern border, as we expected," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN early Friday.
"We are taking them into our custody. We are processing them. We are screening and vetting them and if they do not have a basis to remain, we will remove them very swiftly," he continued.
"Our plan will take some time, but our plan will succeed," he added.
For more than three years the 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) US frontier with Mexico has been regulated by Title 42, a health provision put in place to keep Covid infections at bay by refusing people entry.
But with the formal ending of the health emergency, that rule expired at midnight East Coast time (0400 GMT).
That means Title 8 is back in effect -- a decades-old US immigration policy that allows border-crossers to seek asylum -- along with strict new policy measures that many fear could also expedite deportations and sanctions.
For example, asylum claims must in most cases be lodged before reaching the border on pain of rapid expulsion. Anyone who first tried to cross illegally faces a five-year ban from applying for legal entry.
Asylum-seekers are required to book interviews via a smartphone app -- though users report it is glitchy and presents a hurdle for those without working phones or wifi.
- 'Looking for happiness' -
Overnight, AFP reporters in the border town of Brownsville, Texas said dozens of police cars were deployed on the US side of the bridge connecting the city to its Mexican neighbor Matamoros.
Heavy earth-moving equipment could be seen further on, with personnel readying the ground to install barbed wire.
On the streets of Brownsville itself, Gabriel Landaeta, 22, was among those sleeping rough.
"If someday someone makes a documentary, let them put that the Venezuelan with a good heart came here looking for happiness," he told AFP.
In El Paso, hundreds of people who passed into the country through a legitimate border gate on Thursday had been processed and allowed to lodge their initial asylum claim -- but many others were being held back by Texas National Guardsmen.
And there was apparent confusion among rank-and-file border patrol officers about what will happen in coming days.
"We don't know," said one when asked how they would handle migrants who made it through.
Officials had authorized the release of migrants without court dates in a bid to avoid overcrowding at some border facilities, giving the Biden administration a potential pressure release valve ahead of any surge in crossings -- but late Thursday a federal judge blocked that plan.
- Stinging political debate -
The administration is trying to walk a tightrope between the humanitarian principles of Biden's own Democratic Party, and avoiding the looped footage of hundreds of people crossing the border.
His Republican Party opponents have seized on what they say is an "invasion."
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told reporters in Brownsville there were 22,000 people camping across the frontier from that city alone, pinning the blame on Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for their "deliberate" decision to "open up the border."
But Democratic congressman Mike Levin of California accused Republicans of playing "political football" with the country's immigration system.
The United Nations meanwhile warned that any lasting solution would have to be a regional one -- built jointly by the United States and its southern neighbors.
"The Americas... are going through an unprecedented displacement crisis," Olga Sarrado, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva.
"Just decisions from one single country are not going to fix the challenges and we cannot forget that these are human beings."