Border Agency Prepares for End of Covid Immigration Restrictions

  • Hundreds more staff headed to southwest border
  • Single adults now account for majority of illegal crossings

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is sending more staff and resources to the border for the “eventuality” that Covid-19 restrictions on immigration end, the acting agency head said Wednesday.

The public health declaration known as Title 42 allowed the agency to expel swiftly more than 62% of the migrants who illegally entered the U.S. in April.

“As we look at the eventual and we hope soon lifting of Title 42 — to be honest with you for the sake of our economy and the world — we continue to assess our operations,” Troy Miller, the senior official performing the duties of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, told a House panel.

The Trump administration used public health restrictions to close the border to migrants and asylum-seekers at the beginning of the pandemic. Those limitations, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have drawn more attention as the administration deals with increased numbers of migrants while also considering next steps for the border after the pandemic.

Biden Approach to Covid Border Restrictions Irks Both Parties

Photo: Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images
A migrant family waits to be processed after being apprehended near the border between Mexico and the U.S. in Del Rio, Texas, on May 16, 2021.

Several panel Republicans, such as ranking member Chuck Fleischmann (Tenn.), worried lifting restrictions could lead to a “flood” of migrants at the border and into CBP processing facilities.

The CBP is adding more soft-sided tents to accommodate the arrivals of more children and families, and is deploying additional personnel to help manage those and other border facilities, the acting commissioner testified before the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee.

The Biden administration makes exceptions to Title 42 to allow children and some asylum-seekers into the country. Mexico and the U.S. are negotiating changes to border crossings that could come as soon as June 22, the the Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry said in tweet.

Tents and Personnel

The CBP has stood up four soft-sided facilities, in Yuma and Tucson, Ariz., and Eagle Pass and Donna, Texas, and the agency is adding a fifth, Miller told lawmakers. These structures help address needs that traditional border patrol facilities can’t accommodate, especially under Covid-19 distancing requirements.

The agency has stepped up sending personnel to staff these soft-sided facilities, with about 420 from other sectors expected in place by the end of May. Another 370 local CBP officers could deploy to assist with processing in these temporary facilities, Miller said.

The CBP has also created so-called “movement coordination cells” in which agency, Health and Human Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel help move children out of CBP custody and into more appropriate settings, Miller testified. They are creating similar cells for single adults and family units.

“We’re literally sitting side by side, looking at the information every single day,” he said about the cells.

Not All Can Stay

While March saw record numbers of children come into CBP custody, about 65% of migrants attempting to cross the southwest border right now are single adults, while about 10% are unaccompanied children, and about 25% are family units, Miller told lawmakers.

March also saw a high rate of repeat border-crossers. About 35% of the total apprehensions that month were people who had already been expelled from the U.S., according to CBP data.

“Title 42 lends itself to a higher recidivism rate,” Miller said, agreeing with an assertion made by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), the subcommittee chair.

The end of Title 42 doesn’t mean those apprehended can stay. Miller assured lawmakers, who were concerned illegal crossings would increase after the public health restrictions are lifted, that his agency would work with ICE on Title 8 processing, which applies to individuals who violate immigration law by entering the country between ports of entry.

“I don’t know that they’re waiting in Mexico for the Title 42 to be lifted. I do know that we are preparing in the Customs and Border Protection for the eventuality of Title 42 to be lifted,” Miller said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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