As Mexico's largest migrant camp empties, new tents spring up along border

FILE PHOTO: Blanca Urrutia, a Honduran migrant who is seeking asylum in the U.S., is pictured with their children at a migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico February 19, 2021. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican authorities hope most of the asylum seekers living in a major encampment on the border will be allowed to enter the United States by the end of next week, according to a Mexican government source.

The migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the river from Brownsville, Texas, is currently home to just under 700 migrants, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). The majority are asylum seekers who have been waiting in Mexico as their cases wind through U.S. courts under a program implemented by former President Donald Trump.

One week ago, President Joe Biden's administration began permitting members of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program to enter the United States to pursue their court cases.

UNHCR spokeswoman Silvia Garduño said 27 people crossed the border from Mexico on Thursday and 100 on Friday, and that the agency hopes to continue this pace in the coming days.

The agency, along with the International Organization for Migration, is in charge of the logistics of registering and transporting migrants from the camp to the United States.

The Mexican government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the goal was for 500 migrants in the Matamoros camp to enter the United States by the end of next week.

Mexican authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) referred Reuters to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement that said the registration process "will be done as quickly as possible."

In Matamoros, asylum seekers expressed optimism.

"We've just received news that tomorrow we're leaving!" said Honduran asylum seeker Josue Cornejo in a video recorded inside the camp on Friday evening, which also shows his wife and daughters wiping away tears.

But as one tent city begins to empty in northeastern Mexico, another has sprung up on the other side of the country. In Tijuana, migrants encouraged by the news that some asylum seekers were being allowed to enter the United States have begun to camp out near the El Chaparral port of entry, across the border from San Diego, California. Advocates say about 50 tents have been put up in recent days.

Biden, a Democrat, is balancing pressure from immigration advocates to unwind the hardline immigration policies of his predecessor with concerns about rising numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

To handle an anticipated rise in crossings, CBP said in a statement on Friday that it planned to open a facility in Eagle Pass, Texas.

Plans for the new facility come after CBP announced on Feb. 9 the opening of another temporary facility in Donna, Texas, to handle border processing while the agency's permanent center in McAllen is renovated.

Under U.S. law, children who arrive at the border without parents or legal guardians have to be transferred quickly out of border patrol facilities and into government-run shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Separately, HHS is also scrambling to cope with the influx of new arrivals by opening emergency shelters and trying to speed releases of migrant kids to sponsors in the United States.

"There are no good choices here," Biden told reporters on Friday. "The only other options are to send kids back, which is what the prior administration did."

Most migrants caught at the border, including families and individual adult asylum seekers, are still being rapidly expelled at the border under a Trump-era health rule in place since last March.

(Reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City, Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles, and Ted Hesson in Washington, additional reporting from Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey; Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Daniel Wallis)

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