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Why no post-Title 42 border surge? Shelter operators in Mexico say some migrants are rethinking how to cross the border

Many migrants now know they face a five-year ban from the U.S. if they are deported under an existing rule called Title 8, and are waiting to get asylum appointments via cellphone app.
Teresa Muñoz, seated at center wearing a pink hoodie, rests at a tent at a migrant shelter where she has been trying unsuccessfully for about a month to get an appointment to enter the United States through a new U.S. government mobile phone app in Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, May 11, 2023. She fled her home in the Mexican state of Michoacan after her husband was killed and she was badly beaten. (AP Photo/Elliot Spagat)
Migrants rest in tents at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on May 11.Elliot Spagat / AP file

Despite predictions of a migrant surge after the May 11 end of Title 42, the Covid ban that blocked more than 2 million migrant crossings, the southern border has seen the number of migrant encounters by U.S. border agents drop — down from about 11,000 the Tuesday and Wednesday before Title 42 expired to about 4,400 each day.

Some shelter operators on the Mexican side of the border say that while migrants continue to arrive at their shelters, there are signs that some are pausing their journeys north and rethinking their strategies for entering the U.S. 

According to five shelter operators and workers, many migrants are now aware that they face a five-year ban from the U.S. if they are deported under an existing rule called Title 8, and many are waiting to get official U.S. asylum appointments via cellphone rather than trying to cross the border without authorization.

Pastor Gustavo Banda, who operates Templo Embajadores de Jesus, one of the largest shelters in Tijuana, said he now has more than 1,700 migrants at his facility.

According to Banda, members of a migrant caravan started arriving in the Tijuana area more than two weeks ago with false information from smugglers claiming it would be easier for migrants to enter the U.S. and win the right to stay if they came before Title 42 expired.

“They were lied to,” he said, adding that many Colombian migrants in the first half of the group crossed into the U.S. between ports of entry for this reason.

But since Title 42 expired, he hasn’t seen another group try to cross over the same way and is encouraging migrants to wait in Mexico as long as they need to get an appointment to apply for asylum in the U.S. via CBP One, Customs and Border Protection's mobile phone app. 

“Some have appointments, others do not,” he said of those at his shelter. “Try it legally. It doesn’t matter how long.”

At Casa del Migrante in Reynosa, migrant numbers have also remained over-capacity but largely the same at about 230 for the past two weeks, shelter worker Elizabeth Valle said. 

Valle said that the majority of migrants arriving at their shelter do not yet have an asylum appointment via the CBP One app but that the shelter helps them navigate the system. She said that while some migrants did express interest in crossing without an appointment before Title 42 expired, she’s not seeing them take the same approach right now.

“It’s a lot more calm and no one is thinking of crossing without the appointment,” she said.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, an average of 1,070 migrants have arrived at a port of entry daily to be processed using a CBP One app appointment since May 12.

But waiting for an appointment, especially in places like Reynosa, which has been marked by ongoing cartel violence, can be dangerous for many migrants who are prone to kidnappings as they wait in Mexico.

According to one shelter worker in Reynosa, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, the constant flow of arrivals to the area has attracted unwanted attention from cartel members who have started to kidnap whole groups of migrants for thousands of dollars.

“Every day is worse,” she said, adding that they warn migrants not to leave the facility. “Everyone is afraid. No one can leave.”

The worker, who has been employed at the Reynosa shelter for eight years, says migrants held for ransom get their cellphones taken away and in some cases get their fingers and ears cut off when they are unable to pay their captors.

On the U.S. side, messaging to migrants making their way toward the border has been direct and constant, with CBP highlighting several repatriation flights back to places like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. According to DHS spokesperson Marsha Espinosa, more than 11,000 migrants have been repatriated under Title 8 since May 12.

Most notably, however, immigration officials continue to underscore ways in which now in the absence of Title 42, unauthorized arrivals are now subject to immigration consequences, like the five-year ban from the U.S. if they are deported.

The shelter operators and workers across northern Mexico told NBC News they have not yet seen many migrants deported under Title 8 make their way back into the area, but they are keeping an eye on how these policy changes will soon affect their numbers.

“It’s going to be a very tough year,” Banda said.

In Casa del Migrante in Juarez, a shelter where the number of migrant arrivals is lower than before Title 42 ended, shelter director Francisco Bueno says the possibility of penalties under Title 8 has caused some migrants to reconsider their options. 

“A lot of them are looking for a regular process so as not to risk it,” he said. 

But others will always remain undeterred, predicted Father Pat Murphy, who runs another Casa del Migrante shelter in Tijuana. 

“They don’t understand the difficulty of crossing,” Murphy said. “They all think that they are going to win, that they all got a lottery ticket and they are going to win. It’s an illusion.”