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CDC to phase out border restrictions; increase in crossings expected

Migrants participate in an art project at a shelter in Juarez, Mexico, on March 30. Asylum seekers have packed into migrant shelters in Mexican border cities to wait to enter the United States. (Christian Chavez/AP)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday it will phase out a public health order that for the past two years allowed the U.S. government to expel more than 1.7 million migrants from the southern border, saying the pandemic has eased enough to resume normal immigration proceedings for asylum seekers.

The agency cited lower levels of community transmission in the United States and along the border, the availability of protective measures such as mask-wearing, and higher vaccination rates among U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel who patrol the nation’s ports and borders and take migrants into custody. The CDC said the order would not take effect immediately but would happen by May 23.

“While the introduction, transmission, and spread of COVID-19 into the United States is likely to continue to some degree, the cross-border spread of COVID-19 due to covered noncitizens does not present the serious danger to public health that it once did, given the range of mitigation measures now available,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in the order.

She said the order known as Title 42 is ending gradually to give the Department of Homeland Security time to scale up protective measures at the border, such as providing vaccines to migrants.

“We know that smugglers will spread misinformation to take advantage of vulnerable migrants,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “Let me be clear: those unable to establish a legal basis to remain in the United States will be removed.

“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. “We are increasing our capacity to process new arrivals, evaluate asylum requests, and quickly remove those who do not qualify for protection.”

The rescission has spurred mixed emotions across the United States: Advocates for immigrants are celebrating the hard-won restoration of asylum processing at the borders while Republicans and some Democrats worry that the expected increase in unauthorized crossings — already at record levels — will overwhelm the border and distract officers from investigating drug trafficking and other crime.

CBP made approximately 1 million apprehensions along the southwest border during the first six months of the 2022 fiscal year, and is expected to surpass the record 1.73 million detained the year before, government figures show. The largest group is from Mexico, but tens of thousands are arriving from all over the world, including Haiti, Central and South America, and, increasingly, Russia and Ukraine. DHS records released this week show that the migrants are fleeing violence, hunger and poverty, conditions the coronavirus pandemic has worsened.

The CDC and the Department of Homeland Security have said for months that border crossings will almost certainly increase once the order is lifted.

Biden administration border plan poses midterm danger for Democrats

Homeland Security officials, who oversee CBP and other agencies, said officials are planning for multiple scenarios in case of a major influx, tapping Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to prepare for as many as 18,000 migrants per day, almost triple the current numbers.

Officials have established a southwest border coordination center run by FEMA Regional Administrator MaryAnn Tierney. They said they are expanding holding facilities, arranging for bus and air transport to relieve crowding and making plans to provide coronavirus vaccines to migrants taken into custody. About 400 CBP officers from the northern and coastal borders have been reassigned to the southwest border to help.

The CDC initially issued the order in March 2020 under the Trump administration to expel migrants to Mexico or their home countries ostensibly to stanch the virus’s spread. But the virus was already rampaging across the United States, and advocates for immigrants and some federal judges said there was little evidence that the border policy affected transmission.

President Biden had criticized Trump’s immigration policies and promised to create a more humane system, and he has reduced arrests and deportations of immigrants with deep roots in the United States. But his administration kept Title 42 in place to expel new arrivals as border crossings surged, and records show that Biden ended up expelling far more migrants than Trump did.

Biden also has faced increasing pressure to end the program from Democrats in Congress and the courts. A federal appeals court in the District unanimously ruled in March that the Biden administration could not expel migrant families to nations where they might face persecution or torture, a decision that signaled that Title 42 would soon end. That order is expected to take effect in late April, lawyers said.

Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who filed the main lawsuits against Title 42, said the wind down of the public-health order should start “immediately."

”Too many lives have been destroyed already to allow a two month grace period until May 23, especially given that the CDC and courts have repeatedly put the administration on notice that Title 42 had to end and a plan was needed," he said in a statement.

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

CDC officials have already terminated the order for unaccompanied minors — a group Biden administration officials said last year they would not expel — but have repeatedly said that Title 42 remained necessary for single adults and families, the largest groups attempting to enter the United States.

Border detention facilities are often congested and can hold adults and some families for days at a time, putting them at acute risk of spreading the virus. Expelling them, in contrast, can take as little as 15 minutes and generally happens outdoors, reducing the risk of transmission, the CDC said in August. Advocates for immigrants countered that expelling migrants exposed them to the harms they fled in their home countries, or violence in crime-ridden border cities in Mexico.

Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.