Immigration detainees at the Eloy federal contract prison. Photo by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Democrats at a U.S. House Homeland Security panel hearing on Wednesday praised the end of a Trump-era policy that turned away migrants pleading for asylum at the border.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the so-called Title 42 policy, enacted on public health grounds at the beginning of the pandemic, will end on May 23.
“This order was a pretext to close the border to Black, Brown, and Indigenous people,” the chair of the Border Security, Facilitation, & Operations Subcommittee, Nanette Barragán, said.
“Leading medical experts have consistently argued throughout Title 42’s use that there has never been a solid public health justification for closing our border just to asylum seekers,” the California Democrat said.
However, the announcement has sparked debate — several U.S. Senate Democrats are breaking with the Biden administration’s decision to lift the policy, while Republicans continue to strongly criticize it and predict a surge in immigration.
The ranking member of the Homeland Security panel, Republican Clay Higgins of Louisiana, said Wednesday there would be numerous migrants coming to the United States, and he stoked fears of drugs and drug cartels taking over the border.
“These cartels run a vast, well-organized network that traffics drugs and human beings,” he said.
Higgins said that the U.S. could not handle the nearly 2 million border encounters last year, and would not be able to deal with that many migrants.
Under the Title 42 policy, more than 1 million migrants have been expelled, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
Barragán said that Poland, nearly the size of New Mexico, accepted more than 2 million refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. She added that Title 42 was not being enforced across the board, because Ukrainians were able to seek asylum at the U.S. border.
“To be clear, Ukrainians should be allowed to enter the United States and seek humanitarian protection,” she said. “But so should Haitians, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Africans, and others fleeing violence.”
Higgins said that he did not work for Poland.
“I work for the citizens of America,” he said.
One of the witnesses, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, who works as a senior policy counsel for the American Immigration Council, addressed Republicans’ concern about drugs coming to the U.S. through Mexico.
“There is very little fentanyl coming across the border on the backs of migrants,” he said.
Reichlin-Melnick said most drugs come through mail and vehicles at ports of entry. He added that technology to detect drugs at ports of entry would be crucial in helping border agents seize more drugs.
No larger immigration plan
Democrats are not necessarily united about ending Title 42 without a larger plan in place to deal with immigration.
U.S. Senate Democrats near the border, such as Mark Kelly and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, have called the end of the policy a mistake.
“This is the wrong decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “From my numerous visits to the southern border and conversations with Arizona’s law enforcement, community leaders, mayors, and non-profits, it’s clear that this administration’s lack of a plan to deal with this crisis will further strain our border communities.”
“Today’s decision to announce an end to Title 42 despite not yet having a comprehensive plan ready shows a lack of understanding about the crisis at our border,” Sinema said.
Kelly and Sinema co-authored a letter earlier saying Title 42 should not be halted without a broader policy in place, given the impact on border communities.
Other Senate Democrats that have aired concerns about the end of Title 42 include Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana.
“Ending Title 42 is expected to cause a significant increase of migration to the United States and put more pressure on an already broken system. These problems do not only affect the southern border, but put more strain on those working to secure the northern border as well,” Tester wrote Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in urging a comprehensive plan following the end of Title 42.
Republicans have pledged to reinstate the Title 42 program if they take back the House in the midterm elections, although it was enacted by the CDC and not by Congress.
The removal of the policy will allow non-American citizens who are crossing the border to claim asylum, which is not guaranteed unless they can make a legal case for the need to seek refugee in the U.S.
GOP on attack
Since the CDC’s announcement of the removal of Title 42, Republicans have held press conferences slamming the Biden administration for the agency’s decision and have urged the administration to keep the policy in place.
The White House has distanced itself from its role in the matter, saying that any decision on retaining the policy falls to the CDC.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy held a Monday briefing with the union group representing border patrol agents, the National Border Patrol Council, where those agents expressed their disapproval of the lifting of Title 42.
McCarthy said that he and other GOP members would take a trip to the border in late April.
“How many people have already started coming to the border knowing what will come on May 23?” McCarthy said.
Expedited asylum cases
Ahead of the CDC’s announcement, the Biden administration announced in late March a new policy to expedite asylum cases at the U.S.-Mexico border in an attempt to resolve a years-long backlog that has about 1.5 million cases.
The departments of Justice and Homeland Security issued a rule to allow U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials — rather than immigration judges — to make decisions on claims by migrants at the border that they cannot return to their home countries for fear of death, torture or persecution. This rule would not apply to unaccompanied children.
In a briefing with reporters, Department of Homeland Security officials also said they had been planning the end of Title 42 for months, and sent hundreds of law enforcement officials to the border to assist in processing, and will continue to send agents.
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