EL PASO, Texas -- Francisco Palacios waited for four hours with his wife and 3-year-old daughter at a border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego early Wednesday before going to a nearby hotel for a three-hour nap. They came back, bags packed, only to be disappointed again.
But the family from the western Mexican city of Morelia is prepared to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether and when to lift pandemic-era restrictions that have prevented many from seeking asylum, said Palacios.
“We don’t have a choice,” Palacios said in Spanish, explaining that his family arrived in Tijuana two weeks ago to escape violence and gangs that extorted them for years for a chunk of their income selling fruit from a street cart.
They're among thousands of migrants gathered along the Mexican side of the border, camping outside or packing into shelters as the weather grows colder.
The limits on border crossings had been set to expire Wednesday before conservative-leaning states sought the top court’s help to keep them in place. The Biden administration asked the court to lift the restrictions, but not before Christmas. It's not clear when the court's decision will come.
Texas National Guard members took up positions in El Paso at the behest of the state, while volunteers and law enforcement officers worried that some migrants could succumb to the cold. Nighttime temperatures have been in the 30s and will be even colder in coming days. The Roman Catholic Diocese of El Paso, where nighttime temperatures could drop into the 20s this week, planned to open two more shelters for up to 1,000 people at area churches.
Jhorman Morey, a 38-year-old mechanic from Venezuela, warmed his hands by a campfire with a half-dozen other migrants on the southern side of the Rio Grande. He said he was waiting for a decision on the restrictions before attempting to cross into the U.S. Other migrants waded through shallow waters toward a gate in the border fence.
“I want them to decide” on the public health rule known as Title 42, said Morey, who arrived six weeks ago in the Mexican city of Juarez, across the border from El Paso. He now rarely eats after exhausting his savings.
Hundreds of migrants remained in line in Juarez. Others slept along the concrete embankments of the Rio Grande.
As crowds gathered on the riverbanks, 1st Sgt. Suzanne Ringle said one woman went into labor and was assisted by Border Patrol agents. She added that many children were among the crowd.
In Tijuana, an estimated 5,000 migrants were staying in more than 30 shelters and many more renting rooms and apartments. Layered, razor-topped walls rising 30 feet (9 meters) along the border with San Diego make the area daunting for illegal crossings.
A mood of resignation prevailed in Tijuana’s Agape shelter, which housed 560 predominantly Mexican migrants on Wednesday.
Maricruz Martinez, who arrived with her 13-year-old daughter five weeks ago after fleeing violence in Mexico’s Michoacan state, said rumors were rampant that migrants should line up at the border crossing to San Diego Monday.
Albert Rivera, the pastor and shelter director, convened a meeting to tell people migrants that they should only trust official U.S. sources. He convinced most occupants, but said he would like the U.S. government to provide more detailed updates.
A Mexican woman staying at the shelter with her husband and 11-year-old son, who declined to give her name because she is being pursued by a gang, said she fled her village of about 40 homes in Michoacan state after a gang forced her brother to join, killed him, and then burned her house down. The last straw came after the gang forced her 15-year-old son to join them under threat of killing the family and demanded her husband join, sending photos of chopped limbs as a message of the price for resistance.
The woman said the gang took her husband’s refusal as an insult. “They think we are making fun of them for not wanting to join them,” she said, fighting back tears.
The pastor said psychologists had interviewed the woman and he hoped for her to be exempted from Title 42.
A Mexican man who asked that he be identified by his first name, Brian, for safety reasons, said his refusal to join a gang after seven years in the army prompted him to flee his home in Guerrero state with his wife and two sons two months ago. He avoids leaving the shelter except for quick shopping trips.
Brian said he applied for an exemption to the asylum ban.
“Desperate, sad,” he said when describing his thoughts when he learned that Title 42 would be extended beyond Wednesday. “It’s dangerous because you don’t know who could be following you.”
Under Title 42, officials have expelled asylum-seekers inside the United States 2.5 million times, and turned away most people who requested asylum at the border, on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Immigration advocates have said the restrictions go against American and international obligations to people fleeing to the U.S. to escape persecution, and that the pretext is outdated as coronavirus treatments improve. They sued to end the use of Title 42; a federal judge sided with them in November and set the Dec. 21 deadline.
Conservative-leaning states appealed to the Supreme Court, warning that an increase in migration would take a toll on public services and cause an “unprecedented calamity” that they said the federal government had no plan to deal with.
In response, Chief Justice John Roberts issued a temporary order to keep the restrictions in place.
The federal government then asked the Supreme Court to reject the states' effort while also acknowledging that ending the restrictions abruptly will likely lead to “disruption and a temporary increase in unlawful border crossings.”
States filed a response early Wednesday, arguing that letting the restrictions expire while the court reviews the lower court decision would cause "immediate, severe, and irreversible harms” to the states.
Though the Wednesday expiration date was set weeks ago, the U.S. government asked for more time to prepare — while saying that it has sent more resources to the border.
About 23,000 agents are deployed to the southern border, according to the White House. The Biden administration said it has sent more Border Patrol processing coordinators and more surveillance and has increased security at ports of entry.
Should the Supreme Court act before Friday, the government wants the restrictions in place until the end of Dec. 27. If the court acts on Friday or later, the government wants the limits to remain until the second business day following such an order.
Title 42 allows the government to expel asylum-seekers of all nationalities, but it’s disproportionately affected people from countries whose citizens Mexico has agreed to take: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and, more recently, Venezuela, in addition to Mexico.
Rebecca Santana in Washington, D.C., Juan Lozano in Houston, Alicia Fernández in Ciudad Juarez and Tammy Webber in Fenton, Michigan, contributed to this report.