U.S. to accept asylum claims at southern border again next month after pandemic pause

The United States will end a sweeping, pandemic-related expulsion policy that has effectively closed down the U.S. asylum system at the border with Mexico, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Friday.

Title 42 has been in place for over 2 years; both parties expect a surge in arrivals when it ends

Migrants stranded in Tapachula, Mexico, on Friday take part in a caravan towards the U.S., after growing impatient of waiting for the humanitarian visa needed to cross. (Jose Torres/Reuters)

The United States will end a sweeping, pandemic-related expulsion policy that has effectively closed down the U.S. asylum system at the border with Mexico, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Friday.

The Title 42 public health order will remain in effect until May 23, Mayorkas said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which issued the order in March 2020 as countries around the world shuttered their borders amid COVID-19 fears, said it was no longer needed to limit the spread of the virus.

"After considering current public health conditions and an increased availability of tools to fight COVID-19 [such as highly effective vaccines and therapeutics], the CDC Director has determined that an order suspending the right to introduce migrants into the United States is no longer necessary," the CDC said in a separate statement.

Republican President Donald Trump's administration continued to renew Title 42 — a Second Word War-era public health measure on communicable diseases — until his time in office ended, with Democrat Joe Biden's administration keeping the measure in place for over a year since his inauguration.

The Biden administration had a Friday deadline whether to announce whether it would renew or end the practice, its justification seemingly waning by a relaxation of COVID mitigation measures nationwide.

U.S. makes plans to deal with expected influx

The White House expects an influx of people to the border if Title 42, a COVID-era order that has blocked over a million migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, is lifted, communications director Kate Bedingfield said on Wednesday.

The Biden White House is planning for multiple contingencies around the policy, she said, without specifying.

Mayorkas said in his statement that more than 600 law enforcement officers have already been redeployed to the border.

"We have put in place a comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy to manage any potential increase in the number of migrants encountered at our border," Mayorkas said. "We are increasing our capacity to process new arrivals, evaluate asylum requests and quickly remove those who do not qualify for protection.

The administration will ramp up its vaccination program at the border, he added.

More than a million migrants have been expelled under the order since it was put in place in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the policy, U.S. border agents rapidly send people back to Mexico or other countries, often within hours after being apprehended, without giving them a chance to ask for refuge, a process human rights groups say unlawfully denies them access to asylum.

Migrants and asylum seekers march on March 21 to protest against Title 42 policy in Tijuana, near the San Ysidro port of entry shared with California. (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

In a public plaza in Reynosa, Mexico, nearly 2,000 migrants are camping in tents or under tarps right across the U.S. border from McAllen, Texas. Most are from South and Central America and the Caribbean, and have fled violence or persecution in their home countries.

On Thursday morning, under a beating sun, about a dozen migrants lined up to see volunteer health workers in the camp. A group of women fried fish over an open flame and children ran around, playing with marbles, racing scooters and sweeping up trash.

Aile Rodriguez, 32, has family in McAllen but has been waiting since last August at the camp with her three children, aged eight, 13, and 15. She said they fled Honduras because of gang threats to their family and hope to seek asylum in the United States. "I want to enter legally," she said. "That's why we've suffered here for seven months."

Glendy Juana de Leon, 30, from Guatemala said she was denied a chance to ask for asylum when she crossed the border in July. She has spent the nine months since her expulsion in the Reynosa camp with her eight-year-old son. She said she left home after death threats from her husband, who is in jail for domestic violence but is slated to be released soon.

"I have all my documents, from the hospital, from the police in Guatemala, but they didn't look at any of them," she said. "God willing they'll change," she said, "and ask us why we fled."

Thousands waiting

On the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, across from San Diego, Enrique Lucero, the municipal director of migrant services said he estimates there are thousands of migrants waiting to make their case for asylum.

"This gives them hope," said Jose Maria Garcia, the director of Tijuana's Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter, referring to the plans to lift Title 42.

Garcia and other immigrant advocates have long criticized the policy and are cheering its end. But Garcia acknowledged the decision could strain the border's already crowded shelters if more migrants head north.

"Most of the shelters are already at capacity," he said.

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Thursday said ending Title 42 would "effectively throw our borders wide open," and "spark a humanitarian and security crisis like we've never seen." 

Republicans are likely to focus on any influx at the border as the party seeks to win back one or both chambers of Congress in November midterm elections.

Statement from advocacy group American Immigration Council:

But Rep. Judy Chu from California characterized the order's as "a shameful time in our country's history," while her Democratic House colleague from Texas, Veronica Escobar, said Title 42 "effectively eliminated access to legal asylum in our country."

"It's past time to end it," Escobar said.

Esteban Moctezuma, Mexico's ambassador to the United States, said at an event in Washington that if Title 42 is lifted, migrants who aren't seeking refuge should be sent home to prevent a "revolving door" at the border.

With files from CBC News