With the impending termination of a Trump-era policy that has severely limited border crossings, Biden administration officials are scrambling to put in place last-minute preparations to combat an expected influx of migrants.
The major policy shift coming next week is anticipated to inundate a southern border already heavily strained by irregular migration and an overwhelmed asylum processing system — setting up the Biden administration for a pre-Christmas border crisis.
The Department of Homeland Security provided an emergency update Thursday to its six pillar plan for dealing with the migrant increase following the court-ordered lifting of Title 42. The plan focuses on “surging resources” — adding personnel, transportation, medical support and facilities to support border officials. But DHS warned preparations are being done “within the constraints of a decades-old immigration system that everyone agrees is broken.”
“A real solution can only come from legislation that brings long-overdue and much-needed reform to a fundamentally broken system,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
A federal court gave the administration until Dec. 21 to end Title 42, the Trump-era health policy border officials have used more than 2 million times during the Covid pandemic to expel asylum-seeking migrants. In its place, DHS is “very likely” to revive a “transit ban” model championed by former President Donald Trump’s restrictionist immigration adviser, Stephen Miller — although a final decision will be made within the next week or so, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.
Such a ban would prohibit migrants from applying for asylum in the United States unless they were first turned away for safe harbor by another country, such as Mexico. But the policy faces legal hurdles — the proposal by Miller was blocked in court in 2020.
Border officials are also ramping up new training for asylum officers to help them understand who qualifies under the international Convention Against Torture, which requires migrants to prove they would likely be tortured if returned to their home countries. That sets a much higher bar than traditional claims and signals the administration is looking to further restrict asylum processing.
The administration also is weighing an expansion of humanitarian parole programs for Haitians, Nicaraguans and Cubans, similar to the one rolled out for Venezuelans this fall, people familiar with the proposals told POLITICO. The program admitted up to 24,000 migrants who had a preexisting tie in the United States, and someone who could provide financial and other support, while turning away masses of other Venezuelans who didn’t meet the qualifications.
The resurrection of a policy similar to the Trump-era transit ban along with other restrictive proposals are likely to set off a wave of criticism among Democrats and immigrant advocates.
While the plans are relatively firm, a person familiar with the discussions said, they have not received the official sign-off from Mayorkas or the White House.
DHS directed questions about the plans to a statement White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre issued earlier this month, noting her comments still apply.
“The Administration is committed to continuing to secure our borders while maintaining safe, orderly and humane processing of migrants. This will remain the case when Title 42 is lifted. Reports that indicate U.S. policy will change are inaccurate; no such decisions have been made,” Jean-Pierre posted on Twitter.
The White House did not respond to POLITICO’s request for comment, but Jean-Pierre repeated her stance Thursday during a press briefing.
DHS’ updated six-point plan notes the department has hired 1,000 Border Patrol processing coordinators and added 2,500 contractors and personnel from other government agencies to help with border operations. The department also called on Congress to approve in its funding bill an additional $3.4 billion in resources “necessary to deliver on these six pillars and manage the Southwest border after the Title 42 public health order lifts.”
In the seven-page document, DHS also said it has added 10 temporary facilities to increase Customs and Border Protection detention capacity by “over a third since early 2021.” Greg Chen, senior director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, expressed concern about migrants’ access to attorneys, as well as the conditions of these facilities — which have been criticized for severe overcrowding, health and hygiene problems.
DHS also said CBP is more expedient — it now spends 30 percent less time processing migrants compared to early last year — but Chen worries this could come at a cost.
“No matter how quickly we try to ramp things up, the existing immigration system, but also the immigration courts are not equipped to be able to process immigration cases quickly enough in a way that is also fair and meaningful in terms of the review for their asylum and other claims. And it simply would not be humane or fair to detain,” Chen said.
Even as the administration sprints to prepare for next week, a group of GOP-led states has made a last-ditch bid to save Title 42, claiming its end would cause their states to “suffer irreparable harm.” The D.C. Circuit court was expected to rule Friday on whether to grant the states’ request to suspend the lifting of the policy. The group has also requested a seven-day administrative stay, if the suspension is denied, so it can turn to the Supreme Court for relief.