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Public health officials may lift pandemic border restrictions. Critics warn of chaos

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Homeland Security officials say they're bracing for the possibility of record migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, and they warn that the end of the pandemic border restrictions could add to that surge. That stark warning comes as top public health officials must decide whether or not to extend those controversial restrictions that were put into place by the Trump administration.

NPR's Joel Rose has been following all of this. Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi.

SNELL: So start by reminding us what these border restrictions are and why they're up for review now.

ROSE: Yeah, it was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that authorized these pandemic restrictions known as Title 42 more than two years ago to stop the spread of COVID. And that has allowed immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants at the border. The Biden administration has made some exceptions, notably for unaccompanied children, but it's largely kept Title 42 in place. The CDC has periodically reviewed the policy to see if it's still needed. The agency's latest review is supposed to end today, according to court filings, and we are waiting to see what the CDC will decide.

SNELL: Do you know what CDC officials are saying so far?

ROSE: Well, publicly, not much. But we know that the CDC is under a lot of pressure to lift Title 42 restrictions now that many other pandemic mitigation measures have been dropped. Immigrant advocates and now even some key Democratic leaders in the Senate say it is time for these restrictions to end, but that does not come without some risk for the Biden administration.

SNELL: What would happen at the border if these rules are actually lifted?

ROSE: Well, there's widespread concern that it will lead to an influx of migrants at the border. We're hearing that even from the White House today and the Department of Homeland Security. Yesterday, DHS released its strategic plan for how it's preparing for the coming months, including the possibility of a, quote, "significant increase," unquote, in border arrivals if Title 42 is lifted. One fairly shocking scenario they're planning for is a jump of up to 18,000 migrants per day reaching the border. That's more than twice the average number of migrant apprehensions last summer, which were already at record levels. So DHS says it is standing up additional temporary facilities at the border to hold migrants and will be ready to surge law enforcement and other personnel to the border if necessary, you know, and in general is trying to project this sense that DHS is ready to handle this.

SNELL: So what do critics - I'm thinking of Republicans - say about all of this?

ROSE: Well, they don't think the administration's plan will work. They are urging the Biden administration to keep Title 42 in place and warning that there will be chaos at the border if it's lifted. Here's Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma.

JAMES LANKFORD: They're aware of what they're about to release. They have had a year to be able to plan for it, and they've chosen not to. That is not a plan to help us with illegal immigration.

ROSE: Republicans argue that the Biden administration's policies are to blame for the record number of apprehensions at the border. That's a message we are likely to hear from them a lot as we head toward midterm elections.

SNELL: Right. And how do immigrant advocates respond?

ROSE: Well, they argue there are really a lot of reasons why migration is up - that migrants are fleeing from violence and poverty in Central America and increasingly even further away. Guerline Jozef is the head of the Haitian Bridge Alliance.

GUERLINE JOZEF: It is imperative that all people seeking asylum are received with dignity regardless of their country of origin, whether they are from Haiti or Ukraine or Russia or Guatemala.

ROSE: Immigrant advocates and many public health experts believe that COVID was always just an excuse to limit access to asylum and try to deter migrants from coming to the border, and Title 42, they say, has been putting migrants in danger in Mexican border towns or back in their home countries.

SNELL: Lots to follow in the coming days. That's NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.