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The Biden administration prepares for the end of Title 42

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Biden administration has just over one month to prepare for possible changes at the southern border, and those changes could be major. A federal judge this week threw out the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42, and that comes just as migrant apprehensions are already at record levels. I want to bring in two guests now to help us understand what this all means, both at the border and beyond. We've got Angela Kocherga with member station KTEP in El Paso, Texas, and NPR's Joel Rose reporting from Washington. Hey to both of you.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, Joel, I want to start with you. Can you just remind us what is Title 42 and how much have immigration authorities relied on it over the course of the pandemic?

ROSE: A lot. I mean, immigration authorities have used these pandemic border restrictions called Title 42 more than 2 million times to quickly expel migrants without giving them a chance to first seek asylum in the U.S. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled this week that Title 42 is unlawful because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should have considered less drastic alternatives to protect the country from COVID-19 and also ignored the possible harms of expelling these migrants to Mexico. But the judge agreed to stay that ruling for five weeks with great reluctance, he wrote in all caps, to give the Biden administration more time to prepare for an orderly transition.

CHANG: OK. Well, Angela, you've been in Juarez this week, just across the border from El Paso. What was the reaction there when they all found out this news?

KOCHERGA: Well, Ailsa, I was at a migrant camp located right on the banks of the Rio Grande. And everyone there was aware that Title 42 is ending soon. The news had traveled very fast, and they were cautiously optimistic and very relieved. Now, the only decision left for most was when to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents at a mobile processing center just across the river. So it's all been very orderly. And I talked with Juan Sanchez, who had been living at this camp for a month, and he was very ready to leave.

JUAN SANCHEZ: My friends are telling me that we can cross. Maybe we have a chance. I hope so. We are professionals. We are working people.

KOCHERGA: So about a thousand people have been camped there for about a month. There are no portable bathrooms. And Mei Castillo, someone else I met there, she's a mother of three, she's been sleeping in a donated tent with her husband and her children.

MEI CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: She says the tents do not provide shelter from the tremendous cold, and the temperatures have been dipping below freezing. So no one wants to be there longer than they have to. Border Patrol is telling people not to cross, that they'll be turned back because Title 42 has not ended yet. But the migrants say so far, they're not seeing people from the camp being sent back. And that camp is emptying out as more and more people cross.

CHANG: I imagine so. Well, meanwhile, Joel, you've been following the reaction in Washington. What are lawmakers saying about this ruling so far?

ROSE: There's concern about even greater numbers of migrants trying to cross the border illegally if and, you know, when Title 42 ends. And we heard that today from senators on both sides of the aisle at a hearing with the secretary of Homeland Security, including Republican James Lankford of Oklahoma and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

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JAMES LANKFORD: A lot of people counting on these numbers coming down, and they're not. They're going up. With the end of Title 42 coming in 35 days, we expect it's going to accelerate even higher.

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KYRSTEN SINEMA: With the sudden announcement that Title 42 will be terminated in December, I'm extremely worried the DHS is not ready and that border communities and migrants will suffer the costs for this lack of preparation.

ROSE: You know, we heard these same concerns back in the spring when the Biden administration was preparing to end Title 42 voluntarily. In fact, Senators Sinema and Lankford introduced a bill back then that would have extended these border restrictions. Their bill didn't get very far, in part because a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the Biden administration from ending Title 42 then. But we could potentially see that bill or something like it resurrected now during the lame-duck session.

CHANG: Well, going back to El Paso, Angela, how ready do you think the city government there and all the organizations out there that help migrants, how ready will they be, you think, for more influx?

KOCHERGA: Yeah. Well, they've been through this before. Over the summer, large groups of Venezuelans were crossing the border and arriving in El Paso. So the city says it can open what they call a welcome center to help the migrants find shelter - temporary shelter, that is - and make travel arrangements. And they're dedicating 60 city workers to help nonprofit organizations because they're struggling to find enough volunteers. All of this is very expensive. So they want the federal government to quickly provide funding, $3 million to start. And the city is owed $7 million for the spike in migration this summer. There are no plans to resume that bussing migrants to New York program, but some nonprofit organizations may help arrange travel by bus or plane to other destination.

CHANG: OK. So calls for more federal funding. Joel, what is the Biden administration saying about those calls and about preparations right now?

ROSE: Well, they say they'll be ready. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared before a Senate committee today and said DHS has a plan that includes surging more resources to the border and also more enforcement under the immigration laws that were in place before Title 42.

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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Enhancing the consequences for unlawful entry, especially with respect to individuals who seek to evade law enforcement, including removal, detention and criminal prosecution when warranted.

ROSE: Again, these are a lot of the same things Mayorkas said back in the spring. Any increase in detention or deportation is not going to sit well with immigrant advocates and many Democrats. It's also possible the Biden administration could still try to appeal the judge's ruling on Title 42, up to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals or beyond just because the White House doesn't have a lot of other great options here.

CHANG: That is NPR's Joel Rose and Angela Kocherga with member station KTEP. Thanks to both of you.

KOCHERGA: Thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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