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Migrants gather in Mexico as end nears for US asylum limits

REYNOSA, Mexico — Thousands of migrants packed shelters on Mexico’s border with the United States on Friday as an end neared to Trump-era asylum restrictions, with fresh numbers showing that fewer single adults crossed illegally last month.

Border Patrol agents stopped single adults 143,903 times along the Mexican border in November, down 9% from 158,639 times in October and the lowest level since August, according to a Justice Department court filing.

Nicaraguans became the second-largest nationality at the border among single adults after Mexicans, surpassing Cubans.

The filing in a federal lawsuit in Louisiana gave no explanation for the drop, which came ahead of Wednesday’s scheduled end to a public-health rule known as Title 42. Migrants have been denied rights to seek asylum under U.S. and international law 2.5 million times since March 2020 on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Republican-led states have asked a federal appeals court to keep Title 42 in place. A decision could come down to the wire.

Border cities, most notably El Paso, Texas, are facing a daily influx of migrants that the Biden administration expects to grow if asylum restrictions are lifted.

Tijuana, the largest Mexican border city, has an estimated 5,000 people in more than 30 shelters, Enrique Lucero, the city’s director of migrant affairs said this week.

In Reynosa, Mexico, near McAllen, Texas, nearly 300 migrants — mostly families — crammed into the Casa del Migrante, sleeping on bunk beds and even on the floor.

Rose, a 32-year-old from Haiti, along with her daughter and 1-year-old son have been in the shelter for three weeks. Rose, who did not provide her last name because she fears it could jeopardize her safety and her attempts to seek asylum, said she learned on her journey of possible changes to U.S. policies. She said she was happy to wait a little longer in Mexico for the lifting of restrictions that were enacted at the outset of the pandemic and that have since been a cornerstone of U.S. border enforcement.

“We’re very scared, because the Haitians are deported,” said Rose, who is worried any mistakes in trying to get her family to the U.S. could get her sent back to Haiti.

In Reynosa, about 3,000 migrants are living in tents pitched on concrete slabs and rough gravel inside the walls of Senda de Vida 2, a shelter opened by an evangelical Christian pastor when his first one reached capacity. Flies swarm everywhere under a hot sun beating down even in mid-December.

For the many fleeing violence in Haiti, Venezuela, Central America and beyond, such shelters offer at least some safety from the cartels that control passage through the Rio Grande and prey on migrants.

In McAllen, about 100 migrants who avoided asylum restrictions rested on floor mats Thursday in a large hall run by Catholic Charities, waiting for transportation to families and friends across the United States.

Gloria, a 22-year-old from Honduras who is eight months pregnant with her first child, held onto a printed sheet that read: “Please help me. I do not speak English.” Gloria also did not want her last name used out of fears for her safety. She expressed concerns about navigating the airport alone and making it to Florida, where she has a family acquaintance, and she had very little expectation of what she might find, except some safety and some rest.

Title 42, which is part of a 1944 public health law, applies to all nationalities but has fallen unevenly on those whom Mexico agrees to take back — Guatemalans, Hondurans, El Salvadorans and, more recently, Venezuelans, in addition to Mexicans.

Venezuelan single adults were stopped 3,513 times by Border Patrol agents in November, plunging from 14,697 a month earlier, demonstrating the impact of Mexico’s decision on Oct. 12 to accept migrants from the South American country who are expelled from the U.S.

Mexican single adults were stopped 43,504 times, down from 56,088 times in October, more than any other nationality. Nicaraguan adults were stopped 27,369 times, up from 16,497 times in October. Cuban adults were stopped 24,690 times, up from 20,744.

In a related development, a federal judge in Amarillo, Texas, ruled the Biden administration wrongly ended a critical Trump-era policy to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court. The ruling had no immediate impact but could prove a longer-term setback for the White House.

The “Remain in Mexico” policy was used to force about 70,000 asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for U.S. hearings after being introduced in January 2019. Biden suspended the policy his first day in office, leading down a long and tortured legal and administrative path.

The Department of Homeland Security said it disagreed with Thursday’s decision by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, an appointee of former President Donald Trump. It said it was well within its authority to end the policy and was evaluating its next steps.

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who sued to keep “Remain in Mexico” in place, called it a victory “for now.”

“It’s a common sense policy to prevent people from entering our country illegally,” Abbott tweeted.

Kacsmaryk first ordered that the policy be reinstated in 2021. The Biden administration complied but didn’t enforce the policy widely and only a few thousand people were sent back to wait in Mexico.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that Biden could end the policy while sending it back to Kacsmaryk to determine whether the administration’s action was “arbitrary and capricious” and, as result, violated federal law for crafting regulations.

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Associated Press reporters Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.

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This version corrects November illegal crossings to single adults only, not all migrants.

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