U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees have been warned to prepare for the end of the border pandemic emergency policy as soon as this week — with predictions that illegal border crossings, already at record levels, could triple.
Agency employees, who usually handle enforcement in the interior of the country, have been warned they may need to be deployed to the border so they can help the Border Patrol with an anticipated migrant surge, according to an ICE officer who received the alert.
“We are on a massive crash trajectory for the system,” the officer told The Washington Times.
Homeland Security Department officials confirmed Tuesday that they are preparing for migrant flows as high as 18,000 people per day, or more than half a million per month. Such levels — about the size of the city of Atlanta — are unheard of in American history.
Department officials said the 18,000-a-day scenario is the “very high” contingency. They also have plans for a “high” 12,000-a-day rate, and for the current, already elevated rate, which Border Patrol agents say is about 6,000 to 7,000.
Officials, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity, said they are working to build manpower, processing, transportation and medical capacity to be ready for a surge.
“These strategies are designed to enable a safe, orderly and humane process at the border that prioritizes life safety, national security and process efficiency,” one official said.
The preparations seem to presage the end of what is known as Title 42, a health emergency order that has been in place for more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The order gives the Homeland Security Department the power to expel border jumpers immediately.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which rules on when to trigger Title 42, faces a Thursday deadline for deciding whether to extend the pandemic emergency.
The CDC faces intense pressure from President Biden’s political base demanding an end to Title 42, one of the few Trump-era get-tough border policies the new administration has maintained.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus said in a statement Tuesday that the border shutdown has “always been suspect.” With the waning of deadly COVID-19 cases, the caucus said, it’s past time to end the policy altogether.
“This policy must go,” said Rep. Nanette Barragan, California Democrat and first vice chair of the caucus.
She and other immigrant rights activists say people with legitimate asylum claims are being tossed out of the country before they have a chance to make their cases, condemning them to violence in Mexico, if they wait there, or their homes if they return to their countries of origin.
There are some key dissenters among Democrats, however.
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, Arizona Democrats, fired off a letter last week urging a go-slow approach and complained of “the lack of a specific plan” for handling the expected surge.
They said a “comprehensive” plan needs to be in place before any big changes.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, also called for Title 42 to be maintained. He pointed to rising COVID-19 cases worldwide.
He said the CDC has already allowed carve-outs for some vulnerable populations such as juveniles traveling without parents, but he cautioned against a wholesale repeal right now.
“With encounters along our southern border surging and the highly-transmissible Omicron BA.2 subvariant emerging as the dominate strain in the United States, now is not the time to throw caution to the wind,” the senator said in a letter to the CDC.
Border security experts say Title 42 is the only thing standing between a border in crisis and a border in “utter meltdown,” as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, put it last week.
Over the past five months, Customs and Border Protection has encountered 967,743 unauthorized migrants, which is a record pace. Of those, 443,177 — 45% — have been immediately turned back under Title 42. Should the policy disappear, the government will have to figure out how what to do with them.
Some will be placed in speedy deportation proceedings, but many will lodge asylum claims, earning a foothold in the U.S. while their cases wind their way through immigration courts.
Homeland Security last week finalized plans for a system that would turn over the asylum decisions to immigration officers rather than immigration courts. That plan will have to be phased in over the coming years, and officials privately acknowledge the administration is not ready to handle the expected surge.
That leaves few good options and likely means even more illegal immigrants will be caught and released at the border.
One ICE officer who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity said that’s where ICE comes in.
With the Border Patrol issuing immigration court summonses in only a fraction of cases, it’s left to ICE, the interior enforcement agency, to fill in the gaps.
As of the end of February, ICE had 18,511 migrants in detention. That is the equivalent of just one day’s worth of border jumpers under Homeland Security’s worst-case scenario.
ICE referred questions about its border support operations to Homeland Security headquarters, which didn’t respond to an inquiry from The Times.
But the department did schedule a telephone briefing with reporters where senior officials — speaking on the condition that they not be named — confirmed they were trying to prepare for a surge.
One official said they were already facing strains because of changes in the demographics of the unauthorized flow across the border. People come from far beyond Mexico and its southern neighbors of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the traditional sending countries.
Instead, it’s Cubans, Ecuadorians and Venezuelans who are “really driving some of the increases we’re seeing at the border,” the official said.
The U.S. has strained relations with those countries, making it tougher to negotiate expulsions and deportations, and the migrants are coming across remote parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, where Homeland Security lacks the infrastructure to handle them.
The official insisted he doesn’t know what the CDC would do — “we literally have no idea of what’s going to happen,” he told reporters — but said they will be prepared.
The preparations include building detention tents at the border, arranging for more medical personnel to screen arrivals, and securing more flight capacity to ship people deeper into the country.
The Homeland Security officials also said they are reaching out to state and local leaders and nongovernmental organizations to try to get help in preparing for a surge.
“Engagement is an important part of our strategy,” one of the officials said.
If that outreach is happening it hasn’t reached border sheriffs, said Mark J. Dannels, sheriff in Cochise County, Arizona, and chair of the National Sheriffs Association’s border security committee.
“This is consistent with their failure to share a collective message with local and state law enforcement to include sharing an action plan with us,” he told The Times. “Complete intellectual avoidance by this administration.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.