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Biden administration officials fear lifting Covid restrictions at border could trigger migrant surge

"If they totally wiped it out, we could have a rush at the border," a U.S. official said. "It would be catastrophic."
Image: Migrants Huddle In Camps And Shelters In Tijuana Waiting To Cross Into U.S.
Blanca, an asylum-seeking migrant, holds Claudio, her son, at a makeshift camp on the Mexican side of the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Tijuana, Mexico, on Tuesday. Around 2,000 migrants are waiting at the camp for the opportunity to apply for asylum in the U.S.Mario Tama / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials are worried that lifting the Covid-19 restrictions blocking undocumented immigrants from crossing into the U.S. from Mexico would trigger a surge in migration that could overwhelm the system, according to two U.S. officials familiar with internal discussions about the issue.

The public health order barring border migration, known as Title 42, has expelled back to Mexico almost 1 million immigrants trying to cross the southern border since the Trump administration put it in place in March 2020.

The Biden administration lifted the restriction for children who arrived without parents, and it had internally made plans to allow all parents and children traveling together to enter the U.S. to have their immigration cases heard by the end of July, with single adults to follow in the coming months. But as of this week, the July 31 deadline is "in flux," three sources said.

The rising number of cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. caused by the delta variant of the coronavirus is one factor pressuring the White House to rethink its plan. But, the two U.S. officials said, the administration is also concerned about funding, facilities and staffing issues associated with lifting the restrictions.

The number of undocumented immigrants encountered by Customs and Border Protection in June was over 188,000, a 21-year high. That includes more than 104,000 immigrants who were expelled under Title 42.

The officials said there is concern that if more immigrants are allowed to enter the U.S. to have their cases heard in immigration court, others might try to make the journey, overwhelming the system. The system, made up of multiple agencies, apprehends, processes and briefly detains undocumented immigrants, as well as monitors their whereabouts and adjudicates their claims, and it may eventually deport them.

"They're assuming a ton of people would want to cross the border," an official said.

Another official said: "If they lift it just for families, we could see a rise in families. If they totally wiped it out, we could have a rush at the border. It would be catastrophic."

So far, Customs and Border Protection has received no guidance on how to prepare for the end of Title 42, the officials said.

Immigrant advocacy groups have criticized the Biden administration for keeping Title 42, alleging that it is being used not to control the pandemic but to stop immigrants at the border who they say deserve a fair shot at claiming asylum under U.S. and international law.

"President Biden has said time and again that his administration would be guided by science, yet medical experts have consistently rejected the idea that Title 42 is necessary to protect public health," said Noah Gottschalk, global policy lead for Oxfam America. "Vaccines are readily available and effective against new variants of Covid. The country is opening back up. So, too, should our borders be open for people seeking asylum."

Immigration groups have sued the Biden administration for its use of Title 42 to block families from entering the country to seek asylum.

Spokespeople for Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.

A White House official said Tuesday that the administration is not able to commit to when the policy might end.

"As we've said before, Title 42 is a public health authority, and that authority rests with" the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We'll continue to defer to the public health experts on these decisions and don't have a timeline to preview on specific plans on when Title 42 is no longer needed."