Border braces for record chaos as Biden ends pandemic shutdown policy

Sen. Bill Hagerty was with Border Patrol agents Friday when news of the Biden administration’s decision to cancel the pandemic emergency and reopen the border to illegal immigrants was announced at evening muster.

The Tennessee Republican said a “cloud of depression” fell over agents as their worst fears were realized. Already near-record levels of border arrests, at about 8,000 a day, could surge to 18,000, according to Homeland Security’s own contingency planning.

And the one tool agents felt they had to combat the numbers — the Title 42 border policy, which had allowed the Border Patrol to immediately expel about half of all illegal border jumpers — will disappear on May 23, the government announced Friday.

“The level of discouragement and depression is just unbelievable,” Mr. Hagerty told The Washington Times, recounting a three-day border visit.

Mr. Hagerty showed up on the border in Texas just as the Biden administration in Washington was revealing it had made the decision to end Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that illegal immigration across the border was a serious risk for spread of COVID-19. 

The Biden administration now says that with COVID-19 infection rates lower than their peak, and with migrants able to get vaccines at the border courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, the risk of spread is low enough to end the emergency, effective in late May.

Migrants who were immediately expelled under Title 42 will now have a chance to argue for admission, which experts say will fuel a new wave of people making the attempt.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s entire bed capacity at the end of February was about 20,000, which means at the worst-case scenario Homeland Security anticipates, it would be gone in a single day — not including all the other people already held, or those being arrested in the interior.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas insisted the government is preparing for what’s to come, surging personnel to process and release the migrants, with the hope they show up for their court hearings.

“Nonetheless, we know that smugglers will spread misinformation to take advantage of vulnerable migrants. Let me be clear: those unable to establish a legal basis to remain in the United States will be removed,” he said.

Border experts say it’s not misinformation — those who arrive and make asylum claims, even dubious ones, will have a good chance of being caught and released, earning a chance to burrow into communities.

“When they take away Title 42, there literally will be no defense left down there, and no deportation either in the United States. And asylum will be available to everybody,” said Todd Bensman, national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies. “It’ll literally be the truest definition of open borders that we’ve ever had.”

Over the last two years, more than 1.7 million border jumpers were blocked from entering the U.S. under Title 42.

The policy’s critics say it was tainted from the start by the Trump administration, which used it as an excuse for a border shutdown they’d long sought.

Immigrant-rights advocates say among the 1.7 million expulsions are some legitimate asylum-seekers who have been sent back across the border to Mexico or, in some cases, all the way to their home countries.

Human Rights First, an advocacy group, says it has documented thousands of cases of migrants pushed back into Mexico who were kidnapped, raped or suffered other violent attacks.

Now, they will have a chance to make their asylum claims.

Immigration activists cheered the Biden administration’s decision, but also slammed the president’s team for keeping the policy in place so long in the first place.

“We will not forget the lives lost and those harmed by this illegal and racist policy,” said Lisa Parisio, director of advocacy at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.

The problem for the Biden administration is that the border is already in chaos, even before a Title 42 surge.

Border Patrol agents made 8,063 arrests last Wednesday, which was two days before the Title 42 announcement.

Mr. Bensman said the heightened levels are because Mexico had been bottling people up Tapachula, near its own southern border with Guatemala. But now Mexico is releasing them at a rate of about a thousand or so a day, and they’re making their way north.

When Title 42 fully ends, he expects things to get worse.

“Whatever it’s going to be will be beyond anything in the American experience,” Mr. Bensman said.

Under the Trump administration, during the pandemic, nearly 85% of people apprehended by the Border Patrol were expelled under Title 42. Agents averaged fewer than 48,000 apprehensions per month during that period.

Under President Biden, Title 42 expulsions dropped to 56% of Border Patrol arrests, and with more people being caught and released, more people are attempting to come. Agents averaged nearly 168,000 arrests a month under Mr. Biden, or three times the flow under President Trump.

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said he expects 13,000 to 14,000 arrests a day, with 18,000 a real possibility.

Homeland Security says 18,000 is its worst-case contingency. It’s also planning for a 12,000-a-day scenario.

Mr. Hagerty said for agents, the math is grim.

Right now it takes agents about 15 minutes to do the paperwork for a migrant who’s going to be expelled under Title 42. Processing someone under the usual immigration laws, known as Title 8, takes about 75 minutes, or five times as long as a pandemic expulsion.

Agents told the senator that ending Title 42 means agents will now do “nothing other than paperwork.”

That means even fewer agents on the line trying to stop the most dangerous cargo — drugs and serious criminals who are paying cartels premium prices to be snuck into the U.S. without detection by the Border Patrol.

While many Democrats on Capitol Hill cheered the Title 42 announcement, some expressed dismay.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, called it “a frightening decision,” given the likely surge of people.

“We are nowhere near prepared to deal with that influx,” he said.

Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, both Arizona Democrats, had also complained that the Biden administration lacked a specific plan to deal with the border absent Title 42.

Mr. Kelly is up for reelection later this year and Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, took to Twitter on Friday to say he figures Mr. Kelly will lose his seat because of this decision. So will Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Mr. Romney predicted.

The decision to end Title 42 comes even as the Biden administration is begging Congress for tens of billions of dollars in new money to fight the pandemic, and warning of disastrous consequences from the virus if the money isn’t forthcoming.

Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, called the Biden message on COVID-19 “a contradictory mess.”

Legal experts say they expect GOP-led states to go to court to try to stop the change, which could delay implementation.

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