The day before Title 42 was scheduled to end, hundreds of migrants gathered on the banks of the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas. Some of them, unable to wait any longer, cut a hole through a fence and made it to onto U.S. soil, before uniformed agents resealed the barricade.
The majority retreated and bided their time. Come midnight when the expulsion policy ends, said Elizabeth Guerra, a migrant from Brazil who described herself as “desperate,” she planned to turn herself in to American immigration officials.
Anticipating that thousands more will come all along the border, officials in Texas cities like Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso have declared state of emergency, which allows them to seek more resources from the federal government to transport and house the new arrivals.
In Brownsville alone, close to 2,000 people have already crossed in recent days, a pattern the Border Patrol chief, Raul Ortiz, said he had not seen in a decade.
“It is straining our capacity,” said Eddie Treviño, the county judge for Cameron County, which includes Brownsville. “There is an unknown element to what’s going to happen after Title 42 expires.”
Over the past two days, more than 11,000 migrants a day have crossed the southern border illegally, according to internal data obtained by The New York Times. And the Border Patrol is already holding about 10,000 people more than the capacity of its facilities.
El Paso took additional steps, temporarily closing a street near a shelter for migrants downtown.
El Paso area leaders had hoped to prevent an immigration crisis like the one they saw late last year when a surge of migrants overloaded area shelters, leading to an alarming increase of people sleeping on the streets as temperatures dipped below freezing. But in recent days, the number of migrants surpassed the number who crossed in December. Thousands of people had been overwhelming shelters and crowding the streets.
The city has turned two vacant schools into shelters, and a reception center.
“We’ve never seen this before,” Oscar Leeser, the mayor of El Paso, said on Wednesday
But those crowds largely emptied out after a rare Homeland Security law enforcement operation on Tuesday and Wednesday that encouraged undocumented migrants to turn themselves into the Border Patrol so that they could be registered into the immigration system.
Local officials asked the federal government to help with an estimated 2,500 undocumented migrants who were surrounding a local church that provides support and assistance. Border Patrol agents passed out fliers to migrants to encourage them to turn themselves in.
“It wasn’t about chasing people around, down the streets into churches, in a protected area,” Mr. Ortiz said. “It was a very methodical approach.”
Anthony “Scott” Good, the chief of the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, said nongovernment organizations assisting the migrants wanted the government to encourage people to turn themselves in by promising they would not be deported.
“But we just can’t make that guarantee,” Mr. Good said.
So it was a gamble. “People had to trust that the process would work for them,” said Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, a large shelter.
In the end, more than 900 migrants turned themselves in and the overwhelming majority were released into the country after they were processed.
Afterward, on Thursday morning, the sidewalk around a church downtown, where some 2,500 migrants had been camped out for days, was clear of all but a few dozen people. Gone were the collapsed cardboard boxes, where the migrants had slept. Gone were the overflowing trash bins. Alleyways once teeming with families were nearly empty.
Paulo Molina, 25, a Venezuelan migrant, said he had waited five hours to get to the front of the line to turn himself in to Border Patrol. On Thursday, he had a bus ticket to Washington, D.C. in hand, having been promised a job at a restaurant.
“Thank God I got the papers, and now I can be on my way,” he said.
Edgar Sandoval reported from Brownsville, Texas, and Eileen Sullivan, Todd Heisler and Miriam Jordan from El Paso.