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With pandemic restriction set to end, migrants at the border are lining for asylum

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The end of the pandemic health order Title 42 is hours away. Cities along the southwest border have been preparing for months for this day. In El Paso, Texas, hundreds of migrants seeking asylum have been lining up at the border, waiting to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents. Angela Kocherga with member station KTEP joins us now from El Paso. Angela, tell us the scene there now in El Paso where you are.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Well, Sacha, I was at the border, where people are waiting, and I saw the process unfold. Border Patrol agents opened a gate in the big, towering steel fence, and a line of weary people walked through from the Mexican side. I talked to Agent Fidel Baca, who says there's a steady flow of new arrivals.

FIDEL BACA: We're doing our best to get everybody out of here. At any given point in time where you show up here and you look over, you're going to see a multitude of people.

KOCHERGA: Now, the group I saw included men and women, parents and children holding hands. And most people are from South America. They walked toward a waiting white bus to take them to a Border Patrol processing center. And Border Patrol estimates there's about 65,000 people waiting all along the border in Mexico, but we really don't know exactly how many. I talked to a migrant who arrived at the border a couple of weeks ago, and others have been waiting in Mexico far longer.

PFEIFFER: With all these people arriving and preparing for the end of the - so they can cross over, how is El Paso managing these large numbers of people?

KOCHERGA: Well, the city and the county and local nonprofit organizations say they're ready. They've been through this before. Back in December, when Title 42 was supposed to end, 1,800 migrants a day were turning themselves into Border Patrol in El Paso. And right now we're seeing about 1,100. So that's a lower number. Now, the city has turned two vacant schools into temporary shelters. Churches and nonprofit groups are also providing shelter and food for migrants, and the county has a center to help coordinate travel for people who have sponsors or relatives elsewhere in the U.S. And, of course, the vast majority of migrants do move on.

PFEIFFER: Angela, Border Patrol has said that it will carry out targeted enforcement. What does that mean?

KOCHERGA: Well, we did hear about that earlier this weekend. El Paso Border Patrol agents went downtown and handed out flyers to a crowd of migrants who had been sleeping outside a church. And they urged those people in the flyer, if they had not been processed by immigration authorities, to do so right away and use a legal pathway or they'd risk being picked up and deported. Now, this mother from Venezuela, who only gave her first name as Hildraine, said after careful consideration, her family decided to go through with the processing.

HILDRAINE: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: So she, along with her husband and 13-year-old daughter - they were among an estimated 500 migrants who lined up outside a Border Patrol station in downtown El Paso this week. And they were processed, released and given an immigration court date. Hers was for next summer. And the crowd at the church has dwindled from about a thousand people on Monday to just a few dozen people right now.

PFEIFFER: You've been describing the situation in El Paso. What about the rest of the border?

KOCHERGA: Well, we're hearing that along the California border, they're also seeing people camped out, waiting to turn themselves into Border Patrol agents, and volunteers there are handing out food and water on the Mexican side. And Border Patrol also handed out water to people in line to come into the country. Now, many are from Latin America. We're hearing some are from West Africa.

And volunteers are also helping charge cellphones for the migrants and people waiting to cross into Arizona. Well, those cellphones are also very important. They're using the phones to apply for appointments via the CBP One app. It's now the primary way for migrants to make appointments if they want to seek asylum. Now, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is advising that the international bridges will not receive people seeking asylum. Those who don't have appointments will be turned away. And, of course, we've heard from migrants that that app has problems. Secretary Mayorkas in a press conference today said they're expanding the app to 1,000 appointments a day. But the problem, he said, is they don't have enough asylum officers to meet with migrants.

PFEIFFER: Angela, in maybe 30 seconds, could you give us sort of an overview of - what is the significance of ending Title 42?

KOCHERGA: Well, this really is a watershed moment for the southern border. The pandemic health order imposed more than three years ago became a de facto immigration enforcement tool. And here where I am in El Paso, Texas, the city, and across the border in Juarez, these are major migration corridors, and this has become the site of a humanitarian crisis. And so people are waiting. The question now - what happens after the clock strikes midnight?

PFEIFFER: That's Angela Kocherga with member station KTEP reporting from El Paso. Thank you.

KOCHERGA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emmy winning multimedia journalist Angela Kocherga is news director with KTEP and Borderzine. She is also multimedia editor with ElPasoMatters.org, an independent news organization.