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Tijuana officials frustrated with Biden's approach to immigration

Comments from a federal judge have put plans to end Title 42, a controversial Trump-era asylum policy, in limbo. But regardless of how the judge ultimately rules, KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis says there are still many questions about what the end of Title 42 would mean for asylum seekers.

Enrique Lucero doesn’t hide his preference for Democrats when it comes to U.S. politics. He’s got a bobblehead of former President Bill Clinton on his desk, and he drinks coffee from a mug decorated with a print of Barack Obama’s presidential portrait.

But the director of Tijuana’s Migrant Affairs Department is less than pleased with how the Biden administration has communicated its immigration policy.

“At least when Trump was in office, we knew what we were getting,” Lucero said.

He says Biden’s handling of two Trump-era policies, Title 42 and Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico, have put Tijuana in a bad spot.

Both positions limit access to people seeking asylum in the U.S. As a result, tens of thousands of migrants are stranded in Mexican-border cities. And those cities have to deal with the fallout.

Lucero said Biden’s campaign rhetoric — specifically his promises to overturn Trump’s anti-immigrant asylum policies — is to blame for a makeshift migrant camp that emerged just south of the San Ysidro border crossing last year.

“Biden’s election victory prompted the migrant camp,” she said. “Migrants hoped that he would open up the asylum process and get rid of Trump’s policies.”

Confusion over Title 42

The latest example of Biden’s lack of clear messaging is playing out with Title 42 — a Trump-health order issued early in the pandemic that allows border officials to turn away asylum seekers without a hearing.

The Biden administration announced plans to finally terminate Title 42 beginning May 23. But officials didn’t release a detailed plan of what a post-Title 42 asylum system would look like until Tuesday — nearly a month after the initial announcement.

That plan calls for increasing staff along the southern border, expanding migrant processing capacity, supporting local nonprofits, and deporting unauthorized migrants who are not requesting asylum.

Julia Neusner is a lawyer with Human Rights First who has spent the last two years documenting the struggles of migrants who were turned away from the U.S. via Title 42. Hundreds were robbed, beaten, sexually assaulted and kidnapped upon returning to Mexico.

She said migrants were initially happy to hear that Title 42 was going away. But they're confused about what that means for them.

“I think more than anything, people had questions and doubts,” Neusner said.

Tijuana has been a migrant destination for decades. Lucero said the city is used to having migrants trying to head north and deportees coming south. But most of that migration was temporary — now it is indefinite.

“Before Trump, migrants would stay two or three months before resolving their situation,” Lucero said.

Just this week, a federal judge from Louisiana added more confusion to the future of Title 42. Judge Robert Summerhays, a Trump appointee, said he plans to block the Biden administration from terminating it.

An official decision likely won’t come down until a week or two before the scheduled May 23 end date.

“Realistically speaking, we will probably get a decision just before May 23,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, of the American Immigration Council. “It could be a few days or it could be a week.”