The number of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border illegally has jumped again in recent weeks, stretching capacity and stirring fears that the Biden administration will face an even larger influx if it lifts pandemic restrictions next week.
Of greater concern to CBP officials, the agency has been holding more than 15,000 migrants per day at border stations and tent facilities, exceeding capacity limits. Last month, CBP averaged fewer than 7,500 in custody per day, records show.
When the Border Patrol runs out of capacity and agents are too overwhelmed to process migrants and conduct patrols, authorities have reverted to releasing large numbers of migrants, asking them to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Such releases are viewed as a major incentive for migrant smugglers and are unpopular in border states.
An internal email sent to senior ICE officials in recent days warned that authorities are bracing for a “mass migration event,” and urged closer coordination with charities and nongovernmental groups that can help shelter and transport migrants after they are released, according to a copy obtained by The Post.
CBP officials in the Del Rio, Tex., sector said in a statement Thursday that some of its facilities “have reached capacity,” but the agency continues to safely process migrants and “detain those who pose a public safety risk.”
Since March 2020, U.S. authorities have used the emergency public health order known as Title 42 as their primary border management tool, allowing agents to bypass standard immigration proceedings and rapidly deport most migrants to their home countries or to Mexico.
The government has carried out more than 1.7 million expulsions, saying the Title 42 measures are needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in U.S. detention facilities and protect the American public.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it will reassess by March 30 whether to renew the Title 42 order for adults traveling alone and family groups, court records show. Under President Biden, children and teens traveling without a parent have been exempt.
With mask mandates and other pandemic restrictions easing in recent months, the Biden administration is under mounting pressure from leading Democrats and immigrant advocates demanding an end to Title 42. They say that the order is denying victims of persecution the right to seek asylum under U.S. law and that the government has the tools to safely mitigate infection risks.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a brief interview at his agency headquarters in Washington that the Title 42 renewal will be up to the CDC and will be guided by public health. “They’re going to make the decision that they make within the parameters of their authority,” he said of the CDC.
“It’s a public health authority, not an immigration policy. And so they’ll make their decision and then we will proceed accordingly,” Mayorkas said. Asked whether the Department of Homeland Security is prepared to handle a new influx if the CDC lifts the order, he said, “Our job is to be ready.”
Democratic lawmakers have intensified their calls for Biden to end Title 42, describing it as a “moral imperative.” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said that as the CDC eases coronavirus protocols elsewhere in the United States, “it is perplexing that the agency continues to recommend the extended use of this draconian policy at the border.”
“It is time for the Biden administration to reinstate humanitarian protections at our borders, to build a functional asylum system that is equipped to manage our global migration challenge, and to stop breathing new life into this inhumane Trump policy,” they said in a joint statement this month.
Public health officials have been tracking the spread of the omicron subvariant BA.2 in Europe and Asia, which already accounts for the majority of new infections in parts of the United States. Authorities say it is too soon to tell whether BA.2 will pose a significant threat.
If the CDC opts to extend Title 42, it would not be the first time the Biden administration has faced significant pressure to lift the restrictions but opted to renew them as another wave of infection looms. The emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus last winter quashed speculation that an end to Title 42 was imminent.
Biden officials insist the CDC renewal decision is driven by public health, but in private, border authorities and others say it has become a management tool to cope with the historic migration pressures they have faced since early last year. They worry the end of Title 42 will precipitate another crisis similar to the mass arrival in Del Rio, Tex., last September of Haitian migrants who waded across the Rio Grande and formed a tent city.
Haitians who were turned back or who have been biding time in Mexico are expected to cross into the United States en masse if the Title 42 order is lifted, with officials anticipating tens of thousands. Cuban and Colombian migrants also arrived in record numbers last month. DHS has set up a command post at its headquarters in Washington in anticipation of the strain on U.S. agents and processing capacity.
One possibility is the Biden administration will end or phase out Title 42 expulsions for migrant families, while leaving it in place for single adults traveling alone.
Last month, just 29 percent of the more than 26,580 migrants who arrived as part of a family group were expelled by CBP using Title 42, whereas the agency used it to return 66 percent of the roughly 126,150 single adults taken into custody.
Although single adult asylum seekers can be held in ICE detention centers, the Biden administration is not keeping family groups in custody and typically processes and releases them in a matter of days.
A federal appeals court in the District of Columbia ordered the Biden administration this month to make sure families expelled under Title 42 will not face persecution or torture, a ruling that creates additional pressure to exempt them from the restrictions.
CBP has processing facilities that it mostly uses for family groups in the Rio Grande Valley, Del Rio, El Paso, Tucson and Yuma Border Patrol sectors, with a combined capacity for more than 4,000 migrants. The agency this month also reopened its largest facility, located in McAllen, Tex., after removing the interior partitions denounced as “cages” during the Trump administration. It has a capacity for 1,200.
Beyond that, authorities must rely on holding cells inside Border Patrol stations, which often lack shower facilities and were not designed to hold people for more than a few hours. The agency typically uses the cramped, windowless group cells for single adults, and they are considered the most conducive for spreading infection.
Mexican migrants accounted for more than 40 percent of all those crossing the border detained by CBP last month, data shows, the largest nationality by far. Nearly all were single adults traveling alone.
The Title 42 decision has no bearing on the “Remain in Mexico” policy, formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols, that Biden officials were forced to restart last year under federal court order. U.S. officials do not expect a major expansion of that policy if pandemic restrictions are lifted. Mexican authorities limit the number of non-Mexicans they will accept from U.S. authorities, citing shelter capacity limits, and they continue to urge the Biden administration to return migrants to their countries of origin.
In February, CBP sent 489 migrants back across the border to await U.S. court hearings under the policy, double the previous month, but that amounted to about 0.3 percent of all those crossing the border taken into U.S. custody.
The tight U.S. job market and worsening economies in Latin America, along with rampant crime and political repression, remain significant factors driving migration. Republicans criticize moves to ease restrictions from the Trump administration, and the border influx is a major Republican campaign issue leading up to the November midterm elections, when the party hopes to retake control of the House and Senate.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said at a committee hearing last week that the influx has “completely derailed” efforts to discuss improving legal immigration to the United States, which he said states such as Texas need to staff hospitals and fill jobs. Border states such as Texas and Arizona are bracing for higher numbers of unauthorized immigrants in coming weeks, he said.
“Rather than deter would-be migrants with weak asylum claims from taking the dangerous journey to the southwest border, the administration has rolled out the welcome mat and created new incentives to illegally immigrate to the United States,” he said at the March 15 hearing before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, citizenship and border safety.
Lawyers and advocates who have traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, just south of San Diego, said hundreds of migrants are living in shelters mostly run by nongovernmental groups. They sleep in tents, work as day laborers and lack adequate food and medical care. Many are families with young children, afraid to go outside because of high crime.
“The conditions are squalid,” said Blaine Bookey, the legal director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, who led a team interviewing dozens of families waiting in Tijuana for the federal government to lift Title 42. “There is real lack of access to sanitation, medical care, adequate food, all of the real basic fundamental necessities.”
Some families have been allowed into the United States, but many are afraid to approach the border while the Title 42 order is in place because they fear the U.S. government will expel them to their home countries, including Haiti, where gangs control swaths of territory and the president was assassinated last year.
“There have been some exceptions made for Ukrainians, which we’re happy to see, but the policy should be ended for everyone,” Bookey said. “There was never a public health justification, and there certainly isn’t now.”
Advocates also have urged the Biden administration to let them know when Title 42 might end to prevent a crush of people at the border and to give their relatives in the United States time to pick them up.