On the afternoon of May 11, Charlie González could feel the sidewalk sizzling under his feet. The soles of his two-decade-old shoes had worn thin after walking three thousand miles north from Venezuela, and he lifted one foot and then the other to ease the burning. González, his girlfriend, and their two-year-old son were waiting in downtown El Paso close to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center, mulling their options.
González had only a few hours to make a tough choice: Should he become one of the tens of thousands of migrants living undocumented in the United States, risking deportation if caught? Or should he turn himself over to the immigration authorities, who might release him on the streets of El Paso with a court date—but who could also expel him from the country immediately?
For two months González and his family had slept on the sidewalk in front of the Sacred Heart Church, a privately funded migrant shelter established in one of El Paso’s oldest churches. They slept alongside dozens of other recent arrivals, waiting for a chance to apply for asylum. In April, President Joe Biden announced that on May 11, he would end Title 42, the public health emergency order signed by President Donald Trump that allowed immigration authorities to immediately expel asylum seekers rather than grant them the hearing to which they’re entitled under U.S. and international law. Although Biden reinstated Title 8, an immigration pathway that allows asylum seekers to stay in the United States until their court date, this time it came with stricter restrictions than before. Those who entered the country illegally could face criminal prosecution and a ban on entry for as long as ten years. Before these new restrictions, those entering the country illegally would only face immediate expulsion from the country.
Anticipating the end of Title 42, on the night of May 9, officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement flooded the streets surrounding the shelter where González and his family had been staying. The officers passed out pamphlets written in Spanish instructing undocumented migrants to turn themselves over to immigration authorities to avoid immediate expulsion from the country. But many, including González, knew that turning themselves over could result in expulsion.
González and his girlfriend, Oriani Torrealba, a twenty-year-old Venezuelan, had arrived at the border in Ciudad Juárez in mid-April. After crossing the river, they requested asylum with a Border Patrol officer in El Paso. Their asylum claim cited threats and extortion from gangs in Maracay, Venezuela. Torrealba and their son were given a temporary permit to remain in the United States pending a court date, but because he is not married to Torrealba, González was not considered part of the “family unit.” He was immediately deported to Mexico through a different port of entry more than three hundred miles away in Nogales, Sonora. González made his way back to Juárez to try again. “I explained to the [Border Patrol] officers that my family was here, in Texas, and that they got an appointment through the [agency’s mobile phone] app, and that I couldn’t,” he told me. The border patrol agent did not grant him access, instead expelling him to Ciudad Juárez, where Mexican immigration authorities sent him to Mexico City, more than a thousand miles away. After several weeks, he managed to make it back to the border, determined to cross.
Out of options, González paid a smuggler to get him across the border illegally. Along with thousands of other migrants who crossed illegally, González now finds himself in a no-win situation: either take his chances as an undocumented immigrant or return to Mexico to possibly wait years for the chance to request asylum and see his family again. “This is wrong, because [Biden] forced me to cross illegally the minute he separated me from my family and sent me back to Mexico,” González told me outside the processing center. “I’m gonna get punished no matter how much I tried to make it the right way.”
Other migrants with whom I spoke outside the Sacred Heart church also felt betrayed by the Biden administration. “We feel lied to. He said he was different from Trump and was going to help us, but he is probably worse because he says one thing but does another,” said Alexis Valadez, another Venezuelan migrant in El Paso.
Jorge Loweree, the managing director of programs and strategy at the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit immigration-rights advocacy group, said that Title 8, the new regulation, will restrict access to asylum. “These new policies really reduce the number of people who will qualify for asylum, and consequences will be more severe for those who are in dangerous countries or don’t have access to technology,” Loweree said.
In January, the Biden administration launched a mobile app for asylum seekers to request an appointment for a hearing, but many migrants have said that the app doesn’t work and have struggled for months without getting a place in line. Under Title 8, the only path to seek international protection is through the CBP One app. This makes asylum seekers—many of whom do not have cell phones or access to the internet—even more vulnerable. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have decried this approach, calling the mandatory use of CBP One a violation of the legal right to request asylum.
As the end of Title 42 approached, Customs and Border Patrol authorities expected tens of thousands of migrants to arrive at the border looking to get a place in line. But that influx never arrived. Most migrants stayed in Mexico and continued trying to comply with federal regulations, working to get an appointment through the CBP One app. As of May 15, roughly ten thousand migrants remained in Juárez, across the border from El Paso, trying to get an appointment, according to figures from the Mexican government.
By the end of May, two weeks after Title 42 was lifted, the number of encounters and apprehensions at the border dropped by more than 50 percent, according to Customs and Border Patrol officials. Some asylum seekers had crossed illegally days before Title 42 ended and gathered at the Sacred Heart church, as González had done. Roughly six thousand migrants gathered at one of the border gates between El Paso and Juárez on May 12, waiting to be processed by CBP. They were processed so quickly—some released with a court date and others expelled back into Mexico—that by the end of the day the banks of the Rio Grande were populated by more journalists than migrants.
Four weeks after the end of Title 42, the stretch of border outside El Paso remains quiet. The long queues of migrants have disappeared. A dozen migrants camp in makeshift tents outside Juárez’s city hall. The sidewalk outside Sacred Heart church is empty, as are the streets of downtown El Paso. “Many migrants are just waiting to reevaluate their options and meanwhile staying in Mexico or in South America,” Loweree said.
The Biden administration claimed victory at the border as Title 42 ended. “We have communicated very clearly a vitally important message to the individuals thinking of arriving at our southern border. There is a lawful, safe, and orderly way to arrive in the United States,” Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during an interview three days after the end of Title 42. A day after his comments, immigration advocacy groups sued the Biden administration, arguing that asylum laws “do not allow the administration to restrict access to asylum based on an individual’s manner of entry or whether they applied for asylum elsewhere.”
Migrants I spoke to who arrived weeks after May 12 are defying Mayorkas’s remarks. “They could say whatever they want, or do whatever they want, but we will not stop trying to get to a safe place, to the U.S., because it’s not something we are doing for entertainment or to harm [President Biden], but because we have nowhere to go,” said Carlos Ortega, a Nicaraguan migrant who arrived to Ciudad Juárez two weeks after Title 42 was lifted. “And there are many more on the way here,” he added.
Weeks earlier, with only a few hours to go until Title 42 ended, González finally made a choice. As the sun set behind the Franklin Mountains, he began walking toward the processing center. “Whatever God wants it to be,” he said as he crossed the street to a local food stand. The woman running the stand asked if he was turning himself in. “I have to,” he replied.
The woman handed over two white boxes full of fried rice with chicken. González wasn’t hungry. He handed the boxes over to Torrealba and told her to eat later. They began walking together, pushing the stroller with their son toward the gates of the processing center. The three silhouettes were almost immediately surrounded by Border Patrol agents and soon disappeared behind an automatic fence.
Later that day, Torrealba and their son were released back into El Paso to await their court date in August. By May 17, Oriani still didn’t know where González had ended up. “I hope he is doing well,” she said. “We will wait for him until he can call and we will go from there.”
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