In mid-March 2020, as covid-19 the number of cases began to rise, the CDC announced that it would use Title 42, a little-known provision of the Public Health Services Act of 1944, to effectively ban most migration to the States- United. “This is a public health order that we are operating under right now,” the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection told reporters in May of that year. “It’s not about immigration. What is happening right now is only about infectious diseases and public health. This was a major shift in border policy, but it was also part of other attempts to restrict the movement of people in the early weeks of the pandemic. Even then, however, some were skeptical of the true purpose of using Title 42. The driving force behind its activation was Stephen Miller, the Trump administration’s hardline anti-immigration adviser. Miller had previously pushed for the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly referred to as the Mexico Stay Policy. For decades, people seeking asylum in the United States were admitted into the country while their cases were pending; under the MPP, asylum seekers awaited their hearings in Mexico, often living in dangerous camps controlled by cartels. (According to Human Rights First, there have been more than 1,500 attacks, including rapes and kidnappings, against asylum seekers waiting in Mexico under MPP rules.) Under Title 42, most migrants do not even have the possibility of applying for asylum.
“The MPP says, ‘You stay out of the country,'” Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former head of the Department of Homeland Security, told me recently. “Title 42 doubles that by saying, ‘We’re not even going to pretend to give you a process by which you could possibly stay in the country. You just don’t get in, period. It closed off the border more formally than we could by building the wall. »
But the lack of procedures for asylum applications did not prevent people from coming. After an initial dip in the early months of the pandemic, in May 2020, CBP began recording an increase in “encounters” — the agency’s umbrella term for arrests and deportations. Since then, the numbers have continued to rise to levels not seen since the start of the two thousand. Experts point to several factors in this regard, including the increase in violence and economic conflicts linked to the pandemic in the countries that migrants leave. “There were people sleeping on the streets after being deported and dumped in Mexico. It was basically Title 42 under Trump. policies at Al Otro Lado, which provides legal and humanitarian aid along the US-Mexico border.During the remainder of Trump’s presidency, other pandemic-inspired restrictions were lifted or adjusted, but Title 42 is remained in place.
After Joe Biden was elected, DHS began meeting with humanitarian organizations, including Al Otro Lado, to plan for an expected influx of asylum claims once Title 42 was lifted. “I went to so many stakeholder meetings,” Pinheiro told me. Initially, she says, it looked like the administration would end the program imminently: “We were doing operational planning. We thought, they’re going to have treatment; it will be worthy. We all had these high hopes. But, in the months that followed, as Biden continued to deport migrants under Title 42 — albeit with new exemptions, including for unaccompanied children — Pinheiro became disillusioned. Soon it seemed to him that, rather than subsiding, the expulsions under Title 42 were increasing. “The right-wing media had this Biden-open borders frame from the start. Instead of creating an orderly process that would deny this in practice, the Biden administration really bowed to political pressure and escalated Title 42 deportations,” Pinheiro said. (The share of encounters resulting in expulsion has declined under Biden, but, due to the increase in total encounters, he has presided over nearly three times as many expulsions as Trump.)
With most legal avenues still blocked, asylum seekers continued to make difficult choices. Some still tried to cross the border, often by risky routes in remote areas. (CBP’s rate of rescues per arrest hit a decade high in 2020.) Others remained in camps in Mexican border towns, hoping they would eventually be allowed to seek asylum. Uncertainty and a lack of clear messages from the Biden administration have fueled dangerous conditions in the camps, Pinheiro said. “Cartels and organized crime have stepped into this information vacuum. This has really exacerbated the security issues on the ground. I had organized crime groups selling my phone number, or cloning my phone number and impersonating me.
Last month, the CDC announced that it would lift Title 42 on May 23. The move made sense, given that pandemic-inspired restrictions are evaporating from nearly every other sphere of life. DHS said it expects a temporary influx at the border as a result and is preparing for up to eighteen thousand people a day. According to Pinheiro, this is a flow the agency should be able to handle. “They’re bigger than all the other federal law enforcement agencies combined,” she said. “They have the capacity for humanitarian treatment. If they treat everyone the way they treated the Ukrainians, we will eliminate this backlog in a few weeks. But conservatives have likened the impending end of the program to Armageddon, “a total nightmare and apocalypse of illegal immigration”, and “the Hindenburg crash”.[ing] in the Titanic. A number of moderate Democrats also opposed. Arizona Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly wrote an open letter to Biden saying Title 42 should remain in place “until you are fully ready to implement and coordinate a comprehensive plan that ensures a secure, orderly and humane process at the border”.
Since 2005, when President George W. Bush launched Operation Streamline, the United States’ primary approach to unauthorized immigration has been punishment, often through criminal prosecution. Migrants have routinely been charged with either illegal entry (a misdemeanor) or, if caught repeatedly crossing, illegal re-entry (a felony). Under Title 42 protocols, however, those caught crossing illegally were not subject to prosecution; instead, many were taken to the nearest port of entry and ordered to return to Mexico on foot, sometimes just hours after being apprehended. Given the dangerous conditions in Mexico, many of those deported ended up trying to re-enter the United States. In 2019, only 7% of unauthorized migrants encountered by CBP were repeat travelers; in 2021, more than one in four were. Some migrants tried to cross the border several times a day. Last year, a Tijuana man told the San Diego Grandstand that he had lost count of the number of times he had tried to cross the border in the past few weeks, but he assumed it was about thirty. This increase in recidivism is an important context for the oft-repeated assertion of a “record” number of border arrests. “The actual number of unique individuals attempting to cross the border was significantly lower than the total number of encounters,” CBP noted in a year-end report.
Some of the loud voices insisting that Title 42 stay in place are acting as if the program is necessary for border security. But far from providing security, Title 42 made the southern border a more arbitrary and chaotic place. “If you close the legal channels, of course there will be chaos,” Pinheiro said. The MPP has bolstered cartels in northern Mexico, and CBP has acknowledged that rapid deportations under Title 42 have made it more difficult to gather intelligence on the groups. The aftermath of Title 42 occasionally bursts into national news, including last September, when thousands of Haitians, barred from seeking asylum, huddled under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas. But for Pinheiro, who works mainly in Tijuana, the damage is visible on a daily basis. “Last week, one of our employees was escorting asylum seekers to the entry point, and she was singled out by someone who threatened to kill the asylum seekers if she did not give him everything she had,” Pinheiro said. “Yesterday a Haitian woman was killed here. It’s just awful. But that’s pretty much the future, until Title 42 is lifted.
When I spoke to Brown, I told him that Title 42 seemed to be less of an approach to immigration than an abdication of responsibility. “Exactly,” she said. “Instead of rethinking how we manage migration at our border, we just want to put in place policies that stop it. The problem is that these policies haven’t significantly stopped migration, have they? The numbers are higher than they have ever been. The idea behind MPP and Title 42 is that if we refuse to provide legal avenues for people seeking asylum in the United States, they will stop coming. “Deterrence is effective in inverse proportion to migrant desperation,” Brown said. “What we see is a group of much, much, much more desperate migrants arriving at the border. You’re in a race to say, basically, that things are worse for you here than they would be where you go. And if they really believe they will be killed or their children will be murdered, it’s hard to deter that. Brown believes that deterrence has its place. “But,” she continued, “continue to rely on it as the main border strategy becomes less and less effective. We need to rethink whether treating everything as a matter of law enforcement is the right strategy here.
On Friday, a federal judge blocked the administration’s attempt to end Title 42. The Justice Department appealed the decision, but behind the scenes, Politico reported, some Biden aides were relieved. It is hard to imagine that a comprehensive plan to improve the situation will soon be available; Congress hasn’t passed a major immigration bill since 1990, and Republicans stand to gain by sowing fear over the border. This spring, twenty-six Republican governors, all but two from states that do not border Mexico, formed the American Governors Border Strike Force, ostensibly to share intelligence, but possibly also to offer politicians non-borders the opportunity to be intransigent. In a midterm year, Democrats seem nervous about doing anything that might get them slammed with the “open borders” tag. Pinheiro said she fears Title 42 is here to stay, exacerbating the very problems it claims to solve. “So many people have a vested interest in the chaos narrative,” she said.