WASHINGTON (AP) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that it is ending a policy that limited asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The government said it was already making plans to erect tents and take other steps to prepare for an expected influx of migrants.
The continued use of public health powers had been widely criticized by Democrats and immigration advocates as an excuse for the United States to shirk its obligations to provide haven to people fleeing persecution. The policy went into effect under President Donald Trump in March 2020. Since then, migrants trying to enter the U.S. have been expelled more than 1.7 million times.
The policy, known as the Title 42 authority, is named for a 1944 public health law to prevent communicable disease. The termination of the policy takes effect May 23, to give border officials time to prepare. The Associated Press first reported the change earlier this week.
The administration’s decision appeared to be an attempt to strike a balance in a difficult situation: An immediate end to the asylum ban could have sparked a rush on under-staffed border and immigration facilities. Any further delay would have only increased impatience with the government’s reliance on health-related authorities meant to combat a virus that is swiftly receding.
The seven-week delay before the policy expires is meant to allow officials to step up staffing at the border. In the interim, nearly all migrants seeking to cross into the U.S. are expected to be turned away under a health authority that U.S. officials acknowledge is “no longer necessary.”
U.S. officials said Friday they had been preparing for months for the eventual expiration of the health-related asylum ban, including plans to vaccinate migrants and improve health and safety conditions along the border. Yet they said they still needed until May 23 to put those plans into place. The CDC order states that the virus is no longer cause for turning away migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.
Republicans hinted at legal action to come. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the actions would “endanger Texans.”
“The state of Texas must take even more unprecedented action to keep our communities safe by using any and all constitutional powers to protect its own territory," he said.
The federal order says efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to provide vaccines to migrants at the border will step up in the next two months. The government is currently administering up to 2,000 vaccines a day at 11 locations across the border.
The decision is expected to draw more migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border. And Biden has already dealt with several migrant surges, drawing sharp criticism of his immigration policies. Even before it was officially announced, more than a dozen migrants excitedly ran out of their dormitory at the Good Samaritan shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, asking about it.
Homeland Security officials said this week that about 7,100 migrants were coming daily, compared with an average of about 5,900 a day in February — on pace to match or exceed highs from last year, 2019 and other peak periods. But border officials said they are planning for as many as 18,000 arrivals daily, and that seems certain to cause challenges for border-region Democrats in tight reelection races — with some warning that the Biden administration is unprepared to handle the situation.
A Southwest Border Coordinating Center has been created to respond to any sharp increases, with MaryAnn Tierney, a regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as interim leader and a Border Patrol official as deputy.
Officials also are working on additional ground and air transportation options and erecting tents to house the expected influx. The Border Patrol has already hired more civilians to free up agents who spend about 40% of their time caring for people already in custody and administrative tasks that are unrelated to border security, instead of conducting patrols and uncovering smuggling activity.
The civilians are doing jobs like ensuring that microwaved burritos are served properly, checking holding cells and the time-consuming work of collecting information for immigration court papers.
Still, administration officials acknowledged the fixes are only temporary measures.
“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to pursuing every avenue within our authority to secure our borders, enforce our laws, and stay true to our values," said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. "Yet a long-term solution can only come from comprehensive legislation that brings lasting reform to a fundamentally broken system.”
The limits went into place in March 2020 under the Trump administration as coronavirus cases soared. While officials said at the time that it was a way to keep COVID-19 out of the United States, there always has been criticism that the restrictions were used as an excuse to seal the border to migrants unwanted by then-President Donald Trump. It was perhaps the broadest of Trump’s actions to restrict crossings and crack down on migrants.
CDC officials lifted part of the order last month, ending the limits for children traveling to the border alone. In August, U.S. border authorities began testing children traveling alone in their busiest areas: Positives fell to 6% in the first week of March from a high of nearly 20% in early February.
Immigrant advocate groups lauded the decision, as did many Democrats, some showing dissatisfaction with the delay in its effective date.
“The continued use of this policy — even for the next two months — is indefensible and unjustified," said Efrén C. Olivares, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. "Rather than waiting, we urge the administration to cease use of Title 42 immediately, and to see through their commitment to rebuild our asylum system in a manner that is just, humane and treats people with dignity.”
Republicans and moderate Democrats who already were opposed to ending it made their frustration clear.
“Today’s announcement by the CDC and the Biden Administration is a frightening decision,” said Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “Title 42 has been an essential tool in combatting the spread of COVID-19 and controlling the influx of migrants at our southern border.”