A federal judge ordered a two-week halt Wednesday on the phasing out of pandemic-related restrictions on seeking asylum — and raised doubts about the Biden administration's plan to fully lift those restrictions on May 23.
For now, the decision is only a temporary setback for the administration. But the judge staked out a position that is highly sympathetic with Louisiana, Arizona and 19 other states that sued to preserve so-called Title 42 authority, which denies migrants a chance at asylum on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
"(The states) have established a substantial threat of immediate and irreparable injury resulting from the early implementation of Title 42, including unrecoverable costs on healthcare, law enforcement, detention, education, and other services for migrants," wrote U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Summerhays, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, said states were likely to succeed with their argument that the administration failed to adhere to federal procedures when it announced April 1 that it was ending Title 42 authority.
The judge has scheduled a critical hearing on May 13 in Lafayette to hear arguments on whether to block Title 42 from ending as planned 10 days later.
Texas filed a similar lawsuit Friday in federal court in Victoria, Texas.
The decision to end Title 42 authority was made by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has come under growing criticism from elected officials in Biden's Democratic Party who contend the administration is unprepared for an anticipated increase in asylum-seekers.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the order, but the administration has said it will comply, while contending it will hamper preparations for Title 42 to end on May 23.
About 14% of single adults from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were processed under immigration laws during a seven-day period ending last Thursday. That's up from 5% in March, according to government figures.
Summerhays' order requires the Homeland Security Department to "return to policies and practices in place" before it announced plans to end Title 42 and to submit weekly reports that demonstrate it is acting "in good faith."
Migrants have been expelled more than 1.8 million times under the rule invoked in March 2020 by the Trump administration. Migrants were stopped more than 221,000 times at the Mexico border in March, a 22-year high that has raised concerns about the government's ability to handle even larger numbers when Title 42 is lifted.
Advocates for asylum-seekers say the restrictions endanger people fleeing persecution back home and violates rights to seek protection under U.S. law and international treaty. As the CDC acknowledged, the public health justification for the order has weakened as the threat of COVID-19 has waned.
At two often-contentious hearings Wednesday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas sought to defend the administration's handling of an increase of migrants at the Southwest border and its plans to deal with the prospect of more with the potential end of Title 42.
Mayorkas sought to push back on Republican accusations that the Biden administration has encouraged irregular migration by allowing some people to seek asylum, blaming economic and political turmoil and violence throughout Latin America and the world.
"Some of the causes of irregular migration have only been heightened by years of distress preceding this administration," he said.
Mayorkas testified one day after Homeland Security released a plan with more details about how it was preparing for the end of Title 42 authority.