In Migrant Camps, Anxiety and Relief: ‘It Was Worth It. We Are in America.’
SAN DIEGO — In the vast migrant camp that sprung up this week on a patch of U.S. soil between Tijuana and San Diego, a striking system of order has emerged, even as anxiety and uncertainty swell.
The Africans in the camp — from Ghana, Somalia, Kenya, Guinea, Nigeria — have one leader, a tall Somali man, who communicates with aid groups about how many blankets, diapers and sanitary pads they need that day. The Colombians have their own leader, as do to the Afghans, the Turkish and the Haitians.
Stuck in the same holding pattern as thousands of other migrants in cities along the border after pandemic-era migration restrictions expired on Thursday night, the occupants of the camp here have had to make do with the scarce supply of food and water provided by volunteers and the Border Patrol.
Through metal bars, aid workers on the U.S. side pass through rolls of toilet paper, bags of clementine oranges, water bottles, packages of toothbrushes.
“Can we get the leader from Jamaica, please!” Flower Alvarez-Lopez, an aid worker at the camp, called out on Friday.
A woman wearing a sun-hat and a pink tie-dye shirt stuck her hand through the wall. Another woman wearing a beanie squeezed her full cheeks through the beams. “Can we get the leader from Afghanistan! Russia!”
As thousands of migrants came to the border this week ahead of the expiration of immigration restrictions known as Title 42, frustration, desperation and resilience played out in one spot after another. And on Friday, hours after the restrictions had ended, the waiting and the uncertainty persisted, as did the creativity in place after place.
The thousands of migrants who have made it across the Rio Grande in recent days debated what to do next, while thousands of others bided their time in northern Mexico, trying to decipher how they, too, could cross, and when.
Officials in border cities were facing uncertainty as well, as they tried to anticipate how the policy changes would play out.
Oscar Leeser, the mayor of El Paso, told reporters on Friday that about 1,800 migrants had entered the border city on Thursday. “We saw a lot of people coming into our area in the last week,” he said. But since the lifting of Title 42 overnight, he said, “we have not seen any big numbers.”
Shelter operators reported that it was too soon to tell what could unfold in coming days, since most people who crossed were still being processed by the U.S. government. But they, too, predicted that the largest spikes in crossings might have passed.
“The number of people that were picked up from the river levee on the other side of the wall yesterday was significant, but not nearly what everyone expected it was going to be,” said Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, which assists migrants in the El Paso area. “We’ll have to see what happens in the next few days. There are many variables,” he said.
But while the numbers did not spike on Friday, officials said crossings had reached historically high levels in the days before Title 42 ended. On some days this past week, more than 11,000 people crossed the southern border illegally, according to internal agency data obtained by The New York Times, putting holding facilities run by the Border Patrol over capacity. Over the past two years, roughly about 7,000 people crossed on a typical day; officials consider 8,000 or more a surge.
A person familiar with the situation said that fewer than 10,000 people were taken into custody while crossing the border on Thursday, indicating that the largest increase may have come before Title 42 lifted, although that remains to be seen. The Biden administration had said it expected as many as 14,000 border crossers daily in the immediate aftermath of the order’s expiration.
Outside a shelter in McAllen, Texas, Ligia Garcia pondered her family’s next steps. She was elated to have finally made it across the Rio Grande, but with no family in the United States, and no money, they found themselves in the same situation as thousands of other migrants along the border with Mexico: waiting, while relying on the kindness of strangers.
“We will seek assistance for now, because we have no money and no choice,” said Ms. Garcia, 31, a Venezuelan migrant carrying her 6-month-old son, Roime, near the bulging shelter run by Catholic Charities. “It was a big sacrifice to get here,” she said, describing how she and her husband traveled with their two children across the jungles of Central America, then Mexico, to reach Texas. “But it was worth it. We are in America.”
Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.
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