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Focus is on the southern border as a pandemic-era public health law winds down


Changes are coming to the U.S.-Mexico border this week. A pandemic-era restriction known as Title 42 ends on Thursday. Now, under those rules, border officials have been able to expel migrants quickly, though they can still try to reenter. But now the government will revert to the section of the U.S. code that contains all of the country's immigration laws, known as Title 8. The consequences for migrants could be harsher than they were under Title 42.

FERNANDO GARCIA: People is going to be arrested, processed and deported with penalties. And if they come back again, as probably they are used to on the Title 42, this time they are not going to be expelled. They're going to be sent to jail.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. He works between El Paso, Texas, where he is based, and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. And I asked him what he's seeing at the border right now.

GARCIA: In Juarez, Mexico, what we're seeing is migrants camping along the Rio Grande River. I think we had probably 1,500 migrants already by the river waiting there. Obviously, they're expecting something to happen when Title 42 is going to be lifted. And the other situation is we have almost the same amount of - in downtown El Paso, already in the United States, in front of a church - downtown El Paso, where they are living, sleeping in the streets with no basic services, no water, no medication, no food. So it is really what we call the humanitarian crisis.

MARTÍNEZ: President Biden is sending U.S. troops to the border. What do you think that message sends now that President Biden and his administration feels they have to do this?

GARCIA: There's a general sense of disappointment by the actions of the president. I mean, what we were expecting is the promise of the campaign, which was to have a more humane approach to immigration, to try to resolve the issues not through enforcement but through sensible policies such as immigration reform, pathway to citizen, open more legal channels to come to United States. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I mean, why a humanitarian crisis is being responded with military deployment? Instead of those soldiers, we'll need more FEMA workers, for example, or maybe some asylum judges and asylum lawyers and maybe took some HHS workers. I think that would be different. I mean, that would be sending a different message, that there was a concern about humanitarian crisis. But sending soldiers, I think, doesn't help anybody.

MARTÍNEZ: What would be your No. 1 concern, though, Fernando, because it just feels like, every single year that goes by, the situation does not improve? It gets worse for everyone.

GARCIA: Yes. We had had the situation in El Paso. We had, like, this horrific attack in Walmart where the major motive was precisely this idea that these migrants were invading the country or what has been happening in other parts of the border where there is a rise in terms of the xenophobic and supremacist agendas and some of them promoted by officials in Texas or very similar to what President Trump did during his administration, calling migrants criminals and rapists. So I'm very concerned that we're a moment where we're going to see more aggressions and attacks against families, against people at the border, against Latinos and Hispanics.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Fernando Garcia, the founder and executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. Fernando, thanks.

GARCIA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.