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DHS officials brace for a new surge at the border if pandemic restrictions are lifted

An asylum seeker waits outside the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Tijuana, Mexico. The Biden administration is bracing for a possible surge in migration if it lifts the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
An asylum seeker waits outside the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Tijuana, Mexico. The Biden administration is bracing for a possible surge in migration if it lifts the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42.

Homeland security officials say they're planning for the possibility of a "significant increase" in migration at the U.S.-Mexico border in the coming months — and warn that the end of pandemic-era border restrictions could add to its size.

The Biden administration is under growing pressure from immigrant advocates — and leaders of the president's own party — to drop the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42.

For more than two years, immigration authorities have quickly expelled migrants under restrictions that were first authorized by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention during the Trump administration, without giving them a chance to seek asylum in the U.S.

The CDC's latest review of whether the Title 42 restrictions are still necessary is expected to end on Wednesday, according to court filings.

A decision to lift those restrictions "will likely cause a significant increase in arrivals" at the southwest border, according to a strategic plan released Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security.

"We need to be prepared for what we're considering a potential contingency, which is that the lifting of Title 42 could increase flows," said a senior DHS official during a background briefing with reporters.

The strategic planning document lays out possible DHS responses to a wide range of projections if Title 42 is lifted. In one such scenario, DHS officials say they're preparing for the possibility of 18,000 border apprehensions per day — more than twice the average number of daily apprehensions last summer.

"These aren't projections," the official said. "They are just simply scenarios that we are planning against, so that we can be prepared."

DHS officials says they are already taking steps to prepare for a possible increase in migration. They've established a Southwest Border Coordination Center, and say they are prepared to surge additional immigration officers and resources to the border. The agency is already building additional temporary facilities at the border that can hold additional migrants, another senior official said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is helping in the planning for the administration's response, but DHS officials say it is not involved directly in operations.

Border apprehensions are already high by historical standards. The number of migrant apprehensions at the border soared to more than 2 million in 2021, although hundreds of thousands of migrants were likely counted more than once in the total. Immigration authorities have encountered migrants more than 900,000 times so far this fiscal year, a DHS official said.

Republicans have sought to blame the surge in migration on the Biden administration. A group of GOP senators led by Rick Scott of Florida sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security last week, urging the Department of Homeland Security to make preparations in case Title 42 is lifted.

"This policy served as an effective deterrent to illegal border crossings," Scott wrote. "This is a grave concern that threatens to overwhelm our already strained immigration system and will only exacerbate a disastrous situation at our southern border."

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has repeatedly said that Title 42 is a public health measure, not an immigration policy.

The Biden administration has made some exceptions — including for unaccompanied migrant children, and increasingly for Ukrainian familiesreaching the border. But it has mostly left the restrictions in place, expelling migrants back to Mexico or their home countries well over a million times since taking office.

Immigrant advocates worry the administration could move again to lift Title 42 for certain groups of migrants, such as families traveling with children, while leaving restrictions in place for others.

"Our call is for the Biden administration to completely rescind Title 42 for all people," said Guerline Jozef, the executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance.

"It is imperative that all people seeking asylum... are received with dignity," Jozef said in a call with reporters on Tuesday, "regardless of their country of origin, whether they are from Haiti or Ukraine, Russia or Guatemala."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.