US officials on Monday said there will be "tougher consequences" for migrants illegally crossing the southern border as US President Joe Biden transitions away from COVID-19 restrictions known as Title 42 that allowed agents to quickly expel many migrants to Mexico over the past three years.
The number of people caught crossing the border illegally since Title 42 ended on Friday dropped sharply from highs last week, US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official Blas Nunez-Neto said on a call with reporters.
Apprehensions have dropped as Biden implemented a higher standard for asylum applications at the border and opened up new legal pathways for migrants abroad, while countries further south have stepped up border security, Nunez-Neto said.
Nunez-Neto said migrants crossing illegally "now face tougher consequences at the border, including a minimum five-year bar on re-entry and the potential to be criminally prosecuted if they try again."
Last week, some migrants told Reuters they were rushing to the border to try to enter the country before the new asylum rules took effect. After Title 42 ended at midnight on Thursday, some asylum seekers said they were told by US authorities they could not enter until they applied for an appointment on a new app known as CBP One.
Biden, a Democrat seeking re-election in 2024, has grappled with record numbers of border crossings since he took office in 2021. Republicans fault him for rolling back some of the more restrictive policies of Republican former President Donald Trump, currently his party's front runner for the presidential nomination.
Some Democrats and asylum officers have internally expressed concerns with the rapid rollout of Biden's new asylum standard and said it undercuts the right to claim asylum under US law and international treaties, as well as Biden's own campaign promises. Immigration advocates are suing in an effort to halt the new regulation, which they say mirrors similar Trump policies blocked in court.
US border officials had cautioned for months that the end of Title 42 restrictions, in place since March 2020 at the start of the COVID pandemic, could lead to a rise in illegal crossings. Title 42 allowed US authorities to expel migrants to Mexico or other countries without the chance to request US asylum.
The Biden administration has also expanded legal pathways that allow more people to enter the US without crossing illegally, including the CBP One appointments and applications available abroad for humanitarian parole and refugee status.
The number of migrants caught crossing the US-Mexico border illegally dropped to an average of 5,000 per day since Title 42 ended, down from daily highs of more than 10,000 last week, Nunez-Neto said, cautioning that the situation "is very fluid."
"This is a continuously evolving situation that we are monitoring in real time," he said.
"We are processing people safely, orderly and humanely, and quickly delivering consequences to those that do not establish a legal basis to remain in the United States," Nunez-Neto added.
Mexico and Guatemala have toughened enforcement at their own southern borders with military personnel, while Panama and Colombia have clamped down on smuggling networks, Nunez-Neto said.
Guatemalan Defense Ministry spokesperson Ruben Tellez said the rollout was "not a direct response to the ending of Title 42 but a permanent deployment" organised last year and linked to neighboring El Salvador's crackdown on gangs.
The military presence at the border would continue as long as there is a need to control migration, encompassing up to 1,500 security personnel, Tellez said.
Nunez-Neto added that thousands of migrants have been deported since Friday. At the same time, 2,400 people have been returned to Mexico, including Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, whom Mexico has agreed to continue accepting as deportees. DHS did not provide exact figures for non-Mexicans returned to Mexico.
US border facilities holding migrants were strained last week with more than 28,000 people in custody.
The figure dropped to around 21,000 on Monday, according to Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union for agents, still far above typical levels.
As migrant crossings rose last week, US border officials began releasing some people without a notice to appear in immigration court, telling them to report to an immigration office later to speed up processing. However, the practice was temporarily halted on Thursday by a federal judge in Florida who had previously blocked similar Biden administration efforts.
On Monday, the judge, T Kent Wetherell, threatened to hold Biden officials in contempt after a news article reported that some migrants continued to be released after he ordered a halt to the practice.
In response, Biden officials said migrants processed before the effective date of his order were released the following day and that a small number of cases remained under review.