Watch CBS News

U.S. preparing for potential spike in border arrivals if Title 42 is lifted

U.S. expected to lift border expulsion policy
U.S. plans to lift COVID-19 border expulsion policy known as Title 42 04:20

The Biden administration is building migrant holding facilities, soliciting contracts for transportation services and deploying additional immigration agents to prepare for a potential unprecedented spike in arrivals of migrants at the southern border if a pandemic restriction is lifted, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said Tuesday.

DHS is developing contingency plans for several possibilities, including worst-case scenarios in which 12,000 to 18,000 migrants would enter U.S. custody daily, the DHS officials said during a briefing with reporters, describing migration flows that would overwhelm the government's processing capacity along the Mexican border.

U.S. border officials, who reported a record 2 million migrant arrests in 2021, are currently encountering an average of 7,101 migrants per day, a DHS contingency plan shows. If pandemic-era capacity limits are eased, Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) short-term facilities along the southern border would be able to hold 16,000 migrants on any given day.

But the government would need to expand CBP's holding capacity to accommodate between 25,000 and 30,000 migrants in U.S. custody on any given day if the worst case scenarios materialize, according to the DHS plan, dubbed the Southwest Border Strategic Concept of Operations.

Such a scenario, the strategic plan states, would also require the government to dispatch up to 2,500 law enforcement officers, 2,750 support staff and more than 1,000 medical personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border.

A DHS official stressed that the worst-case scenarios are not government projections. "This is what we do at DHS. We plan for all kinds of contingency events, whether they're high probability or low probability," the official said. "We need to be prepared."

The officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the internal planning, did not provide a timeframe for the termination of Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that allows border authorities to rapidly expel migrants. That determination, they said, is up to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is supposed to make an announcement this week.

"We obviously can't speak on behalf of the CDC and have no real visibility into their processes," a DHS official said. "We literally have no idea what's going to happen, much like you, in the coming days."

Asylum seekers in Yuma, Arizona
Asylum seekers are processed by border patrol, near the USA/Mexico border wall in Yuma, Arizona, United States on February 22, 2022. Katie McTiernan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The official continued: "I think it's unclear what the impact of Title 42's potential lifting in the coming days, weeks or months would be on migratory flows, but we need to be prepared for what we're considering a potential contingency, which is that the lifting of Title 42 could increase flows."'

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former DHS official who now researches migration matters for the Bipartisan Policy Center, said another sharp increase in border arrivals would pose major logistical, humanitarian and political challenges for the administration.

"They're going to face criticism from people who say, 'You're letting everybody into the country,' or people saying, 'You're not providing the processing we want to see.' If their preparations aren't sufficient, and the facilities get overwhelmed and there are humanitarian issues or disease outbreaks, it's going to be a challenge," Cardinal Brown told CBS News.

Officials said they're expanding capacity at "soft-sided" migrant processing facilities and building new ones that should be operational in early April. DHS is also seeking to expand contracts with bus and airplane operators to transport more migrants from different parts of the border, the officials added.

According to the strategic DHS plan, the U.S. currently can transport roughly 5,000 migrants by land and 350 by air per day. If the worst-case scenario materializes, the plan calls for officials to double that capacity.

CBP has already deployed 400 additional agents to the southern border, including to ports of entry, which process a limited number of asylum-seekers. A DHS official said the department is also preparing contracts with other federal agencies that could help process migrants.

On Monday, DHS began an effort to offer COVID-19 vaccines to thousands of migrants in border custody who can't show proof of vaccination. U.S. officials expect to distribute 2,700 doses daily during the effort's first phase, before expanding to 6,000 vaccinations per day by the end of May, according to CBP plans shared with Congress.

The vaccination policy change is another sign that the administration is preparing for the eventual end of Title 42, which the Trump administration enacted in March 2020 as a temporary pandemic response measure.

For 14 months, the Biden administration has said Title 42 is necessary to prevent coronavirus outbreaks inside border facilities, angering advocates and Democratic allies who believe the policy is illegal because it blocks migrants from seeking U.S. asylum.

But a recent court ruling could prompt the administration to scale back Title 42. The court order, if upheld, will require border officials to assess whether migrant families traveling with minor children could be harmed if expelled from the U.S. or prompt the administration to end Title 42 for this population. 

Migrants, who were detained trying to cross into the United States undetected, wait to be searched by United States Border Patrol agents in Sunland Park, New Mexico on September 1, 2021. PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has until Wednesday, March 30, to decide whether border officials can still use Title 42 to expel migrant adults and families to Mexico or their countries without allowing them to request humanitarian protection.

Migrants who are not expelled under Title 42 are processed under regular immigration procedures, which allow them to seek asylum. They could be rapidly deported, sent to long-term detention centers or released with a notice to appear before an immigration judge, who can grant them asylum or order their deportation.

Most unaccompanied migrant children, whom the Biden administration exempted from Title 42, are transferred to shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In 2021, more than half of the 2 million migrant apprehensions recorded along the southern border resulted in Title 42 expulsions. The record number of arrests was partly driven by an unusually high rate of migrant adults crossing the border multiple times after being expelled to northern Mexico.

During Tuesday's briefing, a DHS official noted that one of the administration's main challenges along the southern border is that over 40% of migrants entering U.S. custody each month hail from beyond Mexico and Central America's Northern Triangle, calling it an "unprecedented" demographic shift. 

"One of the key challenges we're facing today is that we're seeing really large numbers of Cuban nationals, Nicaraguan nationals and again, increases in Venezuelan nationals, at the border," the DHS official said. "I think that's obviously tied to these regimes in those countries and the issues those countries are having, both economically and politically."

The U.S., through different administrations, has struggled to deport large numbers of Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans due to strained diplomatic relations — and Mexico generally only accepts its own citizens and migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador under Title 42.

The official added that many of these migrants are arriving at remote parts of the border, such as Del Rio, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona, where DHS has limited processing capacity.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is currently providing "technical assistance" to border authorities, but has not deployed personnel to the southern border, DHS officials said. Last year, the agency was tasked with helping to process unaccompanied children, who entered U.S. border custody in record numbers last spring. 

Nicole Sganga contributed reporting.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.