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

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

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

The Biden administration lifted the restriction for children who arrived without parents and 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 told NBC News.

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

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

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

“They’re assuming a ton of people would want to cross the border,” one official said.

“If they lift it just for families, we could see a rise in families,” another official said. “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 been critical of the Biden administration for keeping Title 42 in place, 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 Oxfam America’s Global Policy Lead Noah Gottschalk. “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.”

The Biden administration has been sued by immigration groups 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 a request for comment.

On Tuesday, a White House official said the administration isn’t 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.”

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