REYNOSA, Mexico — An estimated 15,000 mostly Haitian immigrants have packed into every crevice of this northern Mexican city on the Rio Grande across from McAllen, Texas, and won’t leave. At least not until after 11:59 p.m. on May 11.
That’s the moment when the pandemic-era “Title 42” rapid expulsion policy finally expires and is replaced by a new, untested Biden administration plan for keeping them in Reynosa as well as the “volatile logjam,” as The New York Times recently termed them, of tens of thousands of other immigrants now waiting for the policy change all over Mexico.
But because of a powerful deterrent of Title 42 fairly unique to them, the 15,000 Haitians in Reynosa make for a good bellwether for if the administration’s replacement strategy will hold them back as Title 42 has, or will invite the most chaotic rush on the U.S. southern border yet in this third long year of the most voluminous mass migration event in recorded American history.
The reason to watch Reynosa after May 12 is that most of its Haitians, long ago overflowing migrant camps all over town, will not dare cross the river while Title 42 is in effect, unlike other nationalities who have already disregarded it by crossing in large numbers. The Haitians of Reynosa won’t go even as they enviously witness large numbers of Venezuelans nearby illegally cross in an overwhelming new surge despite Title 42 and see the American government admit them into the country.
Haitians like Shalo Veno, his back to a squalid shantytown where he lives with 500 others, explained that he and his fellow countrymen won’t dare likewise test Title 42 because, whereas most other Title 42 expellees just end up back in Mexico, Haitians could be flown — and often enough are — all the way back to their home island of Haiti, a consequence far costlier for them.
“When I travel here,” Veno said in broken English, pointing at the other bank, “the American policeman keep me and send me back to Haiti. I’m afraid. I’m afraid. I’m afraid. That’s the reason I’m not going. I’m afraid.”
Title 42’s impact on them is why its ending makes Reynosa and its reticent population of Haitians almost the perfect bellwether to know if the Biden administration’s plan for May 12 is going to work as sold. Either way, many hundreds of thousands, turning into millions by the end of the Biden term, will enter.
The question is whether it will be an orderly flow no one can see — or a schizophrenic rush that overflows border management preparations into towns and cities across the country, hurts the country, and poses a political liability for Democrats thinking about 2024 elections.
Dueling Narratives to Be Decided
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently expressed confidence that, after an initial possibly chaotic surge, the new policies will start to clear the border of any population buildup as its planes and buses move migrants into or out of the country.
“Let me be clear: Our border is not open and will not be open after May 11,” the secretary assured reporters at a press conference last week discussing the coming strategy rollout.
Mayorkas hopes his carrots-and-sticks will channel all would-be border jumpers into new and expanded “legal pathways” south of the border where U.S. customs will grant greater numbers of humanitarian permits to qualified immigrants through a phone app reservation system called CBP-One. Since last year, the CBP-One tool has let immigrants through ports of entry and even from foreign airports in South America and Central America. For the administration, this hidden outcome is the ideal one because few voters or reporters can see it happening. That’s the carrot.
“At the same time, we are imposing consequences for individuals who do not use our lawful pathways,” he said of the stick part.
Right now and since January, Title 42 is that stick the administration adopted to supposedly force immigrants into the CBP-One line, although thousands are fearlessly challenging it and already threaten to swamp the new border infrastructure because they see their predecessors winning entry. The CBP-One system was already collapsing for lack of the promised stick use, as I recently reported in Juarez and hundreds of miles further south in Brownsville.
The new plan’s replacement stick to beat them back into the CBP-One queue is a fast-tracked version of the long-existing “Title 8 expedited removal” system. This ostensible stick will “subject” (not mandate) all border crossers to streamlined asylum denials, then quick deportations to home countries, a five-year ban on reentry, and prosecution if they keep crossing afterward.
“They will be removed most often in a matter of days, in just a few weeks,” Mayorkas predicted.
But skeptics who have analyzed the new plan see a buffet of loopholes that immigrants should quickly discover as a fast-pass right into America.
“There will be a mass entry of Haitians into the United States because the only real restriction on them was Title 42,” said Andrew R. Arthur, a former immigration judge and currently a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, when asked about Reynosa’s Haitians. “Expedited removal doesn’t work. It’s not effective.”
The Haitians will learn soon enough if their vanguards get in or get flown to Haiti — and act accordingly. Right now, May 12 is looking up.
Fortunes Favor Red Carpet Pathways into America
Any reading of the fine print in the proposed regulation that will be used as the basis for post-42 policy shows that fortune is stacked in the immigrants’ favor.
For starters, none of the new rules and processes will apply to unaccompanied minors. They’ve gotten the free-pass treatment even from Title 42 since the first day of the Biden administration. As a result, they’ve crossed over the border in by far the greatest numbers ever known, more than 350,000.
That won’t stop now, despite a New York Times expose about how so many who were let in got trafficked into dangerous forced labor work. Everyone else will find they too have one or another red carpet pathway to release into the United States because of time and lack of bed space.
While it may be true that most immigrants will “be subject to” Title 8 expedited removals, everyone who crosses illegally can be assured that they can win a reprieve by simply claiming asylum, which will buy them enough time on appeal to get released and disappear.
The Mayorkas team has often boasted that the asylum claim reprieve will be brief because all illegal crossers will be “presumed” ineligible for asylum when an expanded cadre of officers starts streamlining online interviews and then swiftly deports those deemed ineligible. But not so fast.
There’s a second reprieve if the asylum reprieve is denied: The proposed regulation adds that the presumption of ineligibility is “rebuttable” on any number of claims.
One of several grounds the Haitians and everyone else can be expected to heavily use is that they “face an imminent and extreme threat to life or safety” and can’t be returned. Some can say they’re gay.
These “rebuttals” are supposed to go to immigration judges, who will be surged to ostensibly handle any appeal in three days. But then they can appeal to courts of law beyond that, which adds a third time-consuming reprieve. All they need is to extend the time because the government will be unable to hold so many in detention and will release most. If an asylum claim doesn’t do the time trick, immigrants can switch to a Convention Against Torture claim and start the clock all over.
Imagine if thousands all do this at once. The setup for rebuttals is almost sure to overflow the river banks, as temporary detention facilities being built (six so far) fill up and there’s no room to detain anymore for the time necessary to adjudicate.
Authorities will then have to release them onto the streets or on personal recognizance papers and disappear into America, waving everyone they know back in Mexico in behind them.
Another blessed category of immigrant will be anyone who is part of a family with underage children. Their red carpet runs through a well-worn loophole called the Flores settlement, which requires that federal authorities never detain families for longer than 20 days.
The proposed policy says it will respect the Flores settlement’s 20-day detention limit.
I saw a great many Haitian families in Reynosa, maybe even most of them. All should be able to find the Flores loophole red carpet easily because family detention space is limited and overflows immediately. Expect to see families quickly released on personal recognizance papers so that they too can disappear into America.
So what will the Haitians of Reynosa and everyone else do on May 12? They’ll watch the first brave vanguards go forth to test the system for only one outcome: if they get through into America and are not deported.
If they see that, you’ll see them quickly abandon their shantytowns, delete their CBP-One apps, and join the huge wave of humanity that will soon be crossing the river.