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Biden officials bracing for unprecedented strains at Mexico border if pandemic restrictions lifted

A Cuban woman and her daughter seeking asylum wait in line to be escorted to a Border Patrol van for processing in Yuma, Ariz., on Feb. 6. (Elliot Spagat/AP)
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Biden administration officials who are coping with record numbers of migrants crossing the southern border said Tuesday they are making contingency plans for an even bigger surge if pandemic-related immigration restrictions are lifted in the coming days.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is due to complete its review Wednesday of the Title 42 public health order that since March 2020 has allowed U.S. agents to rapidly “expel” most border crossers. Border authorities have used Title 42 to send at least 1.7 million migrants back to Mexico or their home countries, without giving them a chance to seek asylum under U.S. law.

In preparation for a possible post-Title 42 border rush, the Department of Homeland Security has enlisted Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) officials to help prepare for as many as 18,000 migrants per day. That volume would be nearly three times the current pace of arrivals.

When U.S. agents ran out of capacity to hold and process migrants last year, DHS opted to release them from custody, with instructions to self-report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement later on.

“The nature and scope of migration has changed fundamentally,” said one DHS official, who briefed reporters and spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the department.

The official said an “unprecedented” 40 percent of the migrants being taken into custody are arriving from countries outside Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that have traditionally been the largest sources for migration.

Mexico and Haiti, along with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, account for a large share of the latest arrivals. Troubled relations between the latter three nations and the United States limit DHS’s ability to return migrants to those countries.

Biden faces influx of migrants at the border amid calls to lift limits that aided expulsions

The Title 42 order must be renewed every 60 days, and with the Biden administration easing pandemic restrictions elsewhere, the White House is under mounting pressure from Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups demanding an end to the restrictions.

The DHS officials who briefed reporters said they did not know if Title 42 would be extended or allowed to lapse. But they described contingency planning for mass migration events similar to the one in Del Rio, Tex., last year that placed severe strains on U.S. agents, holding facilities, transportation networks, humanitarian shelters and border communities.

Officials said they established a “Southwest Border Coordination Center” in February, and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appointed a FEMA regional administrator, MaryAnn Tierney, to run it on March 18. Officials are lining up additional buses and aircraft, while separately announcing they will implement long-delayed plans to provide coronavirus vaccines to migrants taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

CBP also has deployed approximately 400 agents from the northern and coastal borders to support the southwest operations.

“Transportation, medical service providers, law enforcement personnel, and holding facilities are all being strained to maintain current operations,” officials said in a planning document, adding that lifting Title 42 “will likely cause a significant increase in arrivals along all United States (U.S.) borders — primarily along the Southwest Border.”

CBP has made nearly 1 million detentions along the southern border through the first six months of the 2022 fiscal year, on pace to easily exceed the record 1.73 million taken into custody during the 2021 fiscal year, according to the latest government figures.

The volume of crossings has left some border sectors completely overwhelmed: the agency’s Yuma sector is at nearly 300 percent of its holding capacity, according to the most recent figures obtained by The Washington Post. The Del Rio sector is also maxed out after weeks of mass crossings.

The influx of migrants, and the unpredictability of the coronavirus variants, have infuriated Republicans and rattled some Democrats who worry it may be too soon to return to pre-pandemic immigration rules at the border. The CDC has noted that 91 percent of the U.S. counties along the southwest border are classified as low- or medium-risk for the coronavirus.

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Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, Democrats from the border state of Arizona, wrote President Biden on March 24 saying the administration’s plans for lifting Title 42 were unclear and warned that it would be “premature” to end the public health order without coordinating first with nonprofits and local governments. While they said the order cannot go on “indefinitely” they expressed “great concern” that the government was not ready.

And in a bipartisan appeal Tuesday, members of the Texas congressional delegation urged the administration to keep the order in place until the number of apprehensions “drops to a manageable level.” In a letter to the DHS and Health and Human Services secretaries, they said DHS “appears unprepared” to handle a massive influx at the border.

Homeland Security officials were planning to hold briefings Tuesday with lawmakers from both parties about their response to a variety of possible scenarios on the border in coming months, according to officials with knowledge of the meetings.

Leading Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have said it is long past time for the administration to end Title 42 after Biden campaigned for president on promises to stop expelling migrants into dangerous border cities and allow them to apply for safe refuge in this country.

The Biden administration is also increasingly facing pressure from the federal courts over the program. The administration last year exempted unaccompanied minors from the expulsions and then, after a federal judge blocked the exemption this month, terminated the order as it applies to them entirely, citing improved conditions on the border.

A D.C. appeals court also ruled this month — in a lawsuit that sought to stop the expulsions of migrant families — that the government could not expel families to countries where they might face persecution. The decision has not yet taken effect.

Advocates for immigrants say those measures and other safeguards demonstrate the government can safely lift Title 42 and uphold asylum protections. They argue the United States should process vulnerable migrants at a time when nations such as Poland are welcoming millions of refugees from Ukraine.