Border Shelters Emptying as Joe Biden Admits 'Vulnerable' Asylum Seekers

Vice President Kamala Harris may have told migrants, "Do not come," but it appears the message has already been received, as shelters along the border begin to empty out.

Over the past several months, shelters in Mexico border cities like Tijuana, Nogales, and Ciudad Juárez hosted hundreds of migrants seeking entry to the U.S. These shelters encountered a steady stream of migrants in need, leading them to reach full capacity as resources depleted.

The Biden administration's recent move allowing "vulnerable" migrants to seek asylum means more people leaving the shelters and seeking entry to the U.S. at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoints. And while the number admitted remains limited to 250 individuals a day, a variety of other factors are also at play.

Pedestrian Walkway to U.S. Border
"Those who were waiting in Mexico are being let in, the flow is less, and the deportees are being processed more efficiently," Tony Payan, Director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, told Newsweek. In this photo, people are seen seeking entry to the U.S. at San Ysidro, near San Diego, on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Alex Rouhandeh

"There's never one thing at work," Tony Payan, Director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, told Newsweek. "Those who were waiting in Mexico are being let in, the flow is less, and the deportees are being processed more efficiently."

While Payan said the initial wave was a crisis for government officials, he sees the "learning curve" of responding to the process being overcome. While on a teaching trip to Juárez, Payan told Newsweek the city had become calmer, with fewer migrants on the streets. He attributes part of this to the new handling of deportations. Marisa Garza, deputy director of the Hope Border Institute in the El Paso-Juárez area, noticed this as well.

Under Title 42, migrants expelled from Texas were dropped off in Juárez, some coming to the area by plane. Garza told Newsweek she witnessed these drop offs, known as lateral transfers, for almost eight weeks, with roughly 100 people coming each day. These individuals joined the stream of migrants who were already making the journey from Southern Mexico and Central America, which forced the shelters to make a hard decision.

"The question became very clear: Do you allow these people to face danger if they're left out in the street, or do you throw your COVID precaution to the wind," Garza told Newsweek. "At that point there wasn't infrastructure for that, but now there's better COVID testing and resources."

A temporary shelter that used to house expelled migrants staying in the city has since closed. Payan said the processing of expelled individuals has picked up to the point where they generally spend one or two nights in the city before making their journey back home.

Border
In this photo, Jesus, 25, and his son Anthony, 5, from Honduras wait outside Gimnasio Kiki Romero, which has been converted into a makeshift migrant shelter, in Ciudad Juarez on April 6, 2021. PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images

On the other end of the border in Tijuana, shelters are experiencing a similar phenomenon.

Dulce Garcia, executive director of Border Angels in San Diego, said lateral transfers to Tijuana also stopped. As a result of this change, hundreds of people no longer find themselves on the streets seeking shelter. One shelter now has capacity to take in 500 people.

In April, Newsweek reported the stories of some of the asylum seekers staying at the El Chaparral migrant encampment near the San Diego-Tijuana border, where at one point more than 2,000 people lived. Garcia told Newsweek that people living in this encampment will eventually make their way to the city's open shelters.

As processing of asylum claims begin to go through, Border Angels remains focused on offering legal aid to those living in the shelters and encampment. However, as fatigue around the migrant situation continues to grow, the security of migrants and those providing legal consultations find themselves at risk.

Border tent camp w/ kids
Children are seen at a pool of water in the El Chaparral migrant camp in Tijuana, a five-minute walk from the U.S. border, on March 30, 2021. Dulce Garcia, executive director of Border Angels in San Diego, told Newsweek that people living in this encampment will eventually make their way to the city's open shelters. Alex Rouhandeh

Due to "security concerns," Dulce told Newsweek the organization was forced to switch their legal aid to remote consultations. Reuters reported on June 6 that a severed human head was thrown at a voting station in Tijuana. Plastic bags filled with body parts were also found nearby. While the reason for the intimidation tactic remained unconfirmed, the outlet reported violence tends to ramp up as gangs look to gain influence at the municipal level.

Political officials face pressure to address the encampment. Some shopkeepers near the border say it detracts from the area and aim for its removal. Past threats of violence led the encampment to close its informal kitchen and school. Garcia said the pressure to address the situation could force migrants into the role of unwilling political props. She fears an organized disturbance could break out in the encampment in order to embarrass local politicians.

"There's a lot of people that don't want the encampment or migrants there," Garcia told Newsweek. "We're trying to get people to understand and discourage them from (staying in the encampment), to stay in those shelters, because it's not safe."