U.S. officials on Monday said there will be “tougher consequences” for migrants illegally crossing the Mexico border as U.S. President Joe Biden transitions away from COVID restrictions known as Title 42 that blocked many migrants from applying for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border over the past three years.
The number of migrants caught crossing the border illegally since Title 42 ended on Friday dropped sharply from highs last week, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official Blas Nunez-Neto said on a call with reporters.
The drop in apprehensions came as Biden implemented a higher standard for asylum at the border and has opened up new legal pathways for migrants abroad, and as countries further south stepped up border security, Nunez-Neto said.
Nunez-Neto said migrants crossing illegally “now face tougher consequences at the border, including a minimum five-year bar on reentry and the potential to be criminally prosecuted if they try again.”
Some asylum officers have internally expressed concerns with the rapid rollout of the new asylum standard and said it undercuts the right to claim asylum under U.S. law and international treaties, as well as Biden’s own campaign promises. Immigration advocates are suing in an effort to halt the new regulation.
Last week, some migrants told Reuters they were rushing to the border to try to enter the country before the new asylum rules took effect. After Title 42 ended at midnight on Thursday, some asylum seekers said they were told by U.S. authorities they could not enter until they applied for an appointment on a new app known as CBP One.
U.S. border officials had cautioned for months that the end of Title 42 restrictions, in place since March 2020 at the start of the COVID pandemic, could lead to a rise in illegal crossings. Title 42 allowed U.S. authorities to expel migrants to Mexico or other countries without the chance to request U.S. asylum.
The Biden administration has also expanded legal pathways that allow more people to enter the U.S. without crossing illegally, including the CBP One appointments and applications available abroad for humanitarian parole and refugee status.
The number of migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally dropped to an average of 5,000 per day since Title 42 ended, down from daily highs of over 10,000 last week, Nunez-Neto said, cautioning that the situation “is very fluid.”
“This is a continuously evolving situation that we are monitoring in real time,” he said.
“We are processing people safely, orderly and humanely, and quickly delivering consequences to those that do not establish a legal basis to remain in the United States,” Nunez-Neto added.
Mexico and Guatemala have toughened enforcement at their own southern borders with military personnel, while Panama and Colombia have clamped down on smuggling networks, Nunez-Neto said.
Thousands of migrants have been deported since Friday, he added. At the same time, 2,400 people have been returned to Mexico, including Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, whom Mexico has agreed to continue accepting as deportees.
DHS did not provide the exact figures for non-Mexicans returned to Mexico.
U.S. border facilities holding migrants were strained last week with more than 28,000 people in custody.
The figure dropped to 22,000 on Saturday, a senior DHS official said, requesting anonymity to share internal data.
The Biden administration has surged personnel to help with the border transition, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) workers who evaluate asylum claims.