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Pandemic rules allowing for fast expulsions of migrants at the border are expiring

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The head of the U.S. Border Patrol says up to 65,000 people are near the southern border and ready to cross.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some estimates are far higher. But whatever the exact number, people are in position as pandemic restrictions expire today. The policy, known as Title 42, made it easier for the U.S. to deport asylum-seekers and others. The big question now is whether the end of this policy will encourage a lot more people to cross.

INSKEEP: U.S. Border officials are suggesting there's less to worry about than it may have seemed. NPR's Joel Rose is getting a look for himself. He's in El Paso, Texas. Hey there, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are you seeing?

ROSE: Well, there are migrants on the street in downtown El Paso. They are not hard to find. But there are not as many as you would have seen here, say, in December. Border-wide, there have been more than 10,000 migrant apprehensions per day now for several days in a row, and the number of people in Border Patrol holding facilities is way above their official capacity. There are upwards of 26,000 migrants in those facilities as of yesterday afternoon. That is according to the Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz. Ortiz says that number actually is down slightly from yesterday morning.

He believes what's happening this week is the spike that people have been waiting for and that he does not expect to see another big jump after Title 42 lifts. Ortiz told reporters here that there are about 60- to 65,000 migrants waiting near the border to cross, though, as you have noted, other estimates are much, much higher than that. And if those higher estimates are right, it could really overwhelm the resources of the Border Patrol and local communities.

INSKEEP: OK. So at least from the Border Patrol, an indication that this may not be that bad. Of course, we have to wait and see. What is El Paso doing to prepare for whatever happens?

ROSE: They are not taking any chances. They've opened an emergency shelter at a former middle school here to house migrants temporarily if necessary. El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said that he had visited Juarez yesterday, just across the border in Mexico, talked to officials there, and that the number of migrants in Juarez seemed to be down from just a few days ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OSCAR LEESER: We've seen the numbers decline. We've seen the numbers are down. But we don't know what's coming in the next days. We know that they'll continue to come, and we'll continue to make sure that we help them.

ROSE: These are migrants who are fleeing from violence and poverty and political instability, fleeing from countries all over the Western Hemisphere. But in practice, most of the migrants we're seeing here are from Venezuela and other South American countries.

INSKEEP: Twice you've had the indication from people of the numbers declining rather than increasing. Are you hearing from any of the migrants themselves?

ROSE: Yeah. We talked to one migrant named Lilibeth Ramirez, who came from Colombia along with her partner and their 4-year-old son. And she said they had been deliberately watching the situation at the border closely and made the decision to cross before Title 42 lifts.

LILIBETH RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) Of course, we knew that if we crossed before the 11, the chances of being allowed to stay here were better for us.

ROSE: Her assessment is that U.S. authorities are going to begin cracking down on illegal border crossings, and it will get harder for migrants to come in after Title 42. But that is just one family. You know, other migrants we've talked with are confused about what the end of Title 42 is going to mean, and many could reach a very different conclusion and decide to cross later.

INSKEEP: True. But it's very interesting what you are hearing from that one person because the Biden administration has been saying they're making big changes to border policy that will still make it hard for people to cross when Title 42 ends. Sounds like she believes them. What are they doing?

ROSE: Yeah. The Biden administration has rolled out this combination of new legal pathways and much tougher restrictions on asylum at the border. The administration published its final text of a new rule on asylum yesterday, and they say they will begin enforcing that rule tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Well, NPR's Joel Rose will keep looking for the reality as it unfolds rather than just the fear of what may happen. Joel, thanks so much.

ROSE: You bet.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joel Rose is in El Paso, Texas, and watching. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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