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Opinion A migrant surge is coming at the border — and Biden is not ready

A makeshift migrant camp set up on a public square housing nearly 2,000 migrants in Reynosa, Mexico, on March 31. (Daniel Becerril/Reuters)
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For two years, the U.S. government has used an increasingly shaky finger in the dike to halt a tsunami of undocumented migrants at the Mexican border. That recourse — a pandemic-related public health order that allows asylum seekers to be swiftly expelled — is crumbling under judicial scrutiny and political pressure from Democrats and is about to be voided. The Biden administration, bracing for the fallout, has done too little to prepare.

Under the order, known as Title 42, more than 1.7 million migrants have been turned back at the border since March 2020. Many would have sought asylum, as is their right under U.S. law, had they not been blocked by Title 42, which President Donald Trump invoked as covid-19 swept the country. President Biden, whose arrival in office triggered a surge of border crossers hoping for more humane treatment, retained the order as a tool to hold back the tide.

It has been increasingly clear that the policy is political damage control masquerading as a public health imperative. When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit weighed the merits of Title 42 in a ruling last month, it noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, under whose jurisdiction the order falls, had provided no current justification for it. Following a review, the CDC announced on Friday that the order would be lifted on May 23.

The predictable effect of lifting Title 42 is a new influx of migrants from Central America and beyond, which would compound an existing surge at the U.S.-Mexican border. The dimensions are anyone’s guess. Administration officials say migrant apprehensions, already around 7,000 daily, could spike to 18,000 and overwhelm the system. That could go on for a few weeks or much longer — a politically toxic scenario for the administration.

Department of Homeland Security officials are assembling what amounts to a logistical war room to manage the coming mess — for detention facilities, transportation capabilities and Border Patrol officers themselves. Perhaps more consequentially over the long term, the administration is putting the finishing touches on a new asylum system, in the works since last year, that would accelerate an adjudication process that now typically takes five years, shrinking it to six months. That involves hiring hundreds of asylum officers who would evaluate claims from migrants that they would face persecution if returned to their home countries, and divert them from immigration courts, which already face a crushing backlog: 1.7 million cases, about 40 percent of which involve asylum claims.

That’s a solid plan — if it survives expected legal challenges from Republicans. But it is unlikely to be in place fast enough or in sufficient scope to accommodate the likely migrant surge once Title 42 is lifted in May. A meaningful fix would require a legislative overhaul of the legal immigration system, which has eluded a dysfunctional Congress for years, and a concerted, long-term U.S. effort to address the root causes of illegal immigration — crime, violence, poverty and corruption in Central America and beyond.

That was supposed to be Vice President Harris’s brief, but she appears to have done little to address the problem. Absent progress on that front, the Biden administration and its successors will surely face more chaos at the border.