A controversial public health policy used at the southern U.S. border during the Trump administration and left in place when President Joe Biden entered the White House will be lifted in May, a move that has sparked anger among those in Washington who want to keep the number of migrants entering the United States as low as possible.
The rule, known as Title 42, was put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Citing the danger of allowing potentially infected people to enter the country, Title 42 empowered border enforcement agencies to immediately expel many people crossing the border, including those who did so in the hope of applying for asylum, something otherwise permitted by U.S. law.
On Friday, the CDC released a statement that said, in part, “After considering current public health conditions and an increased availability of tools to fight COVID-19 (such as highly effective vaccines and therapeutics), the CDC Director has determined that an Order suspending the right to introduce migrants into the United States is no longer necessary.”
Since Title 42 was put in place in March 2020, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has used it to expel individuals from the country 1.7 million times. Because the rule allows individuals to be deported without being charged with illegally crossing the border, the total number is believed to reflect many individuals who have been expelled from the country more than once.
Lifting Title 42 would dramatically increase the number of people allowed to enter the country and apply for asylum. It could also encourage many more people to try to cross.
In a presentation to reporters this week, the Department of Homeland Security said border agents are currently seeing an average of 7,101 people per day on the U.S. southern border, and more than 800,000 in the first five months in fiscal 2022, roughly twice as many as the same period in 2021.
The department said that it expects daily encounters to surge to as many as 18,000 when Title 42 is lifted. Because many of those people would be allowed to stay in the U.S. while asylum claims are validated, Homeland Security officials are putting plans in place to manage the flow of asylum-seekers by providing temporary housing.
However, in the past, border agencies have been overwhelmed and have been forced to release asylum-seekers into the community with instructions to report back for information on their asylum claims.
In a statement released Friday, after the CDC’s announcement, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas said, “We have put in place a comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy to manage any potential increase in the number of migrants encountered at our border.”
Mayorkas said that the agency is increasing its ability to evaluate new arrivals and to remove those who cannot present a valid request for asylum.
“We will increase personnel and resources as needed and have already redeployed more than 600 law enforcement officers to the border,” Mayorkas said. “We are referring smugglers and certain border crossers for criminal prosecution. Over the next two months, we are putting in place additional, appropriate COVID-19 protocols, including ramping up our vaccination program.”
The reaction among Republicans in Washington was generally negative after the change was announced on Friday, with many claiming that it is proof that the Biden administration supports an “open borders” policy.
California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, used Twitter to criticize the administration’s decision, writing, “President Biden has abdicated his responsibilities and is actively making his border crisis worse. Mark my words. His decision to eliminate Title 42 will invite a lawless surge of illegal border crossings, enriching human traffickers and overwhelming our great Border Patrol.”
Biden faced different reactions from within his own party. Many Democrats have sharply criticized the administration for allowing Title 42 to remain in place for as long as it did.
Mississippi Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and California Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, & Operations, released a joint statement.
“With almost all pandemic restrictions ending or winding down, we welcome the CDC’s decision to finally end Title 42 expulsions at the border next month. This harmful and inhumane policy was never based on sound science or public health need but was an all-too-convenient tool for the extreme members of the previous administration to close the border.”
However, other Democrats were highly critical of the decision.
Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, whose state borders Mexico, said in a statement, “This is the wrong decision. It's unacceptable to end Title 42 without a plan and coordination in place to ensure a secure, orderly, and humane process at the border. From my numerous visits to the southern border and conversations with Arizona's law enforcement, community leaders, mayors, and non-profits, it's clear that this administration's lack of a plan to deal with this crisis will further strain our border communities.”
‘Astronomical’ immigration numbers
Tom Homan, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Donald Trump, told VOA that he believes the decision is a bad one on both public health and immigration policy grounds.
“I think it's going to cause more COVID,” he said. “Even though we may be turning the corner here, many countries are not. And a lot of people still are not vaccinated in this country, so I think the health risk is high.”
Discussing the projected increase in border crossings, Homan, who is now a visiting senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, “It’s going to be numbers like we never saw before…It's going to be astronomical, and there's no way they're going to be able to handle it.”
A ‘racist’ policy
Allen Orr, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told VOA that his group is pleased that the Biden administration has decided to lift enforcement of Title 42. However, he said, “We're a little bit perplexed as to why it took so long to get to that decision.”
Orr said it has long been clear that Title 42 was more about border control than public health, and called on the administration to take steps to ensure that it cannot be invoked again.
“We need to make sure people can't use title 42 ever again,” he said. “Title 42 has been part of a racist policy, directed at Black and brown people on the southern border.”