What it looks like on the ground at the border, months after Title 42 ended
A Trump-era border policy known as Title 42 ended in May, and since then, many public figures have offered their opinions of how the federal government is handling the transition.
Gov. Greg Abbott made the case for his Operation Lone Star border operation on a conservative talk show in late July.
“This is a topsy-turvy, Alice in Wonderland type approach by the Biden administration,” he said. “We need a president of the United States that is going to enforce the laws of the United States that prevent illegal immigration.”
Operation Lone Star authorized the deployment of troopers and national guard forces to the Texas/Mexico border. The initiative has so far cost the state over $4 billion.
While Abbott continues to claim the Biden administration has “open border policies,” human rights advocates say the Biden administration’s border policy excludes too many asylum seekers.
U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar agrees with those advocates. In late July, he ruled that current border policy is contrary to federal immigration law. All of this while the Biden administration reported 60,000 less border encounters per month from May to June.
But what’s actually changed on the ground?
Pastor Abraham Barberi is no stranger to shifting border policies. He works with One Mission Ministries in Brownsville and has been doing humanitarian work around there and across the border in Matamoros for more than twenty years.
“When I came to Matamoros years ago, my biggest concern or my biggest desire to do something here was the violence,” Barberi said. “The cartels were fighting against each other and there was a lot of violence.”
Barberi has a way of meeting people where they are. Rather than trying to get cartel members to attend church, he met them in the streets and used a medium they’d relate to –hip-hop. Barberi organized concerts and shared stories about his own past.
“I would get on stage and say, ‘hey, I’ve done drugs and alcohol; I wasted my life,’” Barberi said. “But there’s another path and in my case, Christianity worked.”
Barberi’s concerts became immensely popular, drawing thousands of people. Eventually, the movement became something more permanent – a church called Comunidad Esencia Urbana.
The hip-hop church Barberi founded is now a fixture, but his focus has shifted to another fact of life in South Texas: a large number of asylum seekers. Barberi raises money to provide food, water and clothing for a migrant camp in Matamoros, and helps asylum seekers understand the changing rules at the border.
With the end of Title 42 came a big change regarding deportations.
From March 2020 until May of this year, Title 42 required asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while allowing border agents to bypass legal processing and immediately expel asylum seekers who had entered the U.S. illegally. Under current policy, anyone who enters the country illegally is deported and barred from applying for asylum for five years.
Barberi thinks that change has led to less people crossing the Rio Grande illegally in his area.
Although he sees less asylum seekers crossing the river from Matamoros into Brownsville, Barberi’s humanitarian efforts remain in high demand. The historic drought and heatwave gripping the area means that Barberi’s water trucks are especially needed.
Barberi said there are fewer people there than there were early this year. They have scarce resources and are living outside in oppressive heat. Yet, they remain grateful and generous. One group of asylum seekers making lunch insisted on sharing their juice with visitors.
Many travel thousands of miles on foot to reach this camp. One asylum seeker said it was a combination of factors that drove her from her home in Colombia. She asked to be called “Yvette” as she didn’t feel safe giving her full name.
“I am the mother of four children and I suffer a lot because they are not with me,” Yvette said. “I would like to bring them later because there is so much violence and extortion. We cannot be happy there. I do not have a house. I am a victim in Colombia. A flood reached our chests and we lost everything – the bed, the house, everything, everything.”
Although she lost everything and is separated from her family, Yvette said her faith keeps her going.
“Well, the truth is that we thank God because he has given us the opportunity to wake up one more day alive. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible,” Yvette said. “We have to keep fighting and hoping that God’s will is done. He is the only one who can open doors for us and make people in the United States feel that they can help us.”
Eagle Pass is six hours northwest of Matamoros. It’s where last month, under orders from Gov. Abbott, Operation Lone Star troops anchored buoys in the Rio Grande, stretching concertina wire along the bank.
“And you’d think that that would really hinder people from coming, but they circumvent it and they still are coming,” said Tiffany Burrow, Director of Operations at Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition in nearby Del Rio. “It’s not stopping people.”
In addition to providing food, clothing and short-term shelter, the group helps asylum seekers reach their final destinations in other cities around the country. Last year, over 49,000 asylum seekers walked through the doors at Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition. The group only has four full-time staff members and relies heavily on volunteers.
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Burrow said the number of people seeking aid has been steady this year, despite the border buoys and the end of Title 42. But she has noticed a change in the physical health of asylum seekers.
“Right now we’ve been working with people who have had injuries,” she said. “They’ve been treated but that doesn’t necessarily stop the pain.”
Though policies and enforcement have changed at the border, the factors driving migration remain much the same. Issues like cartel violence, political upheaval, religious persecution, and natural disasters are daily realities for many of those crossing the Rio Grande into Texas.
Like Yvette, many people experience a combination of these factors. But something else remains unchanged, too: the commitment from border aid workers like Tiffany Burrow and Pastor Abraham Barberi.
Miguel Barajas contributed translation and logistical support to this story.
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