Fewer than expected migrants arrived at the border after Title 42 expired, but officials remain on high alert

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By Nouran Salahieh and Polo Sandoval, CNN

(CNN) -- Despite warnings about a potential surge in migrants that sent thousands of federal personnel to the southern US border, officials said the days after the expiration of a Covid-related border restriction policy known as Title 42 saw fewer migrants arriving at the border than initially expected.

Ahead of the policy's expiration,long lines formed at checkpoints and makeshift encampments proliferated in border communities.

Over the past two days, in contrast, US border authorities saw a 50% drop in the number of migrant encounters along the US southern border, compared to earlier in the week before Title 42 ended, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN's Dana Bash on Sunday.

There were about 6,300 border encounters on Friday, and 4,200 on Saturday, Mayorkas said, adding that the number stood at around 10,000 before the policy ended.

Mayorkas, however, warned it's too early to say whether the surge in migrants at the US southern border has peaked.

Many who leave their homes and head to the US make long and oftentimes dangerous treks in hopes of finding better, safer lives. Some may be fleeing violence, experts say, while others may be immigrating for economic opportunities or to reunite with family.

At a shelter in El Paso, Texas, where families marked Mother's Day waiting in limbo, migrant mothers told CNN it was their maternal instinct to provide for their children that drove them to make the perilous journeys to the US.

"A parent will do anything to see their children safe," said Conny Barahona, a migrant from Honduras who was at the shelter with her 9-year-old.

But the mother made it to the shelter without two of her daughters, ages 18 and 20, who remain in federal detention, she said.

"It will be a sad Mother's Day," Barahona said. "My daughters won't be by my side."

The mother turned down several coveted opportunities to travel to Houston, refusing to go anywhere without all of her daughters."We left Honduras together and that's how we must remain," she said.

Title 42, a controversial Trump-era policy from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, allowed authorities to swiftly turn away migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border. The policy ended last week, along with the national coronavirus public health emergency.

In the lead-up to the policy's expiration, authorities warned of a potential migrant surge that could worsen conditions at already strained border facilities. In anticipation, resources were surged to the border to support local authorities.

While the number of migrants coming in may be lower than what federal officials were bracing for, the border town of Laredo, Texas, is still on "high alert," the city's mayor, Victor Treviño, told CNN's Jim Acosta Sunday.

"As a border community we are accustomed to these kinds of events but nothing to the degree that what people were waiting for at one time," Treviño said. "The unfortunate reality is that we are already at near-capacity in our hospitals before Title 42 expired."

More severe consequences for crossing border

In El Paso -- which has seen hundreds of migrants sleeping on sidewalks after a recent spike in arrivals -- Mayor Oscar Leeser said the city has so far seen a "smooth transition" out of Title 42 but is still preparing for what the future may hold.

"We know that we still need to prepare for the unknown because we don't know what's going to happen next week and continue to happen day in and day out," Leeser said.

Thousands of migrants for weeks took refuge around El Paso's Sacred Heart Church, but the numbers have dwindled in the past few days, according to Father Rafael Garcia, a pastor at the church.

The relatively lower-than-expected numbers of migrant encounters over the weekend can be credited to the Biden administration's clear message to migrants that circumventing the lawful pathways for asylum come with grave consequences, Mayorkas told CNN.

With Title 42 now expired, US authorities are leaning more on Title 8, a decades-old protocol for asylum seekers which could carry lengthier processing times and more severe consequences for those crossing unlawfully.

The Biden administration is also introducing new measures, including one that would largely ban migrants who traveled through other countries on their way to the US-Mexico border from applying for asylum in the US -- with some exceptions.

The administration is also rolling out a new program for migrant families released in the United States to track them as they go through a speedy deportation process, including a measure that would require they stay under home confinement, sources familiar with the plans said.

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