Migrants in limbo as U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocks end of COVID-era border restrictions


The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said COVID-era restrictions that were set to end this week should temporarily stay in place as a Republican legal challenge moves forward, just as the White House and border communities had been prepping for an increase in the number of migrant crossings.

Chief Justice John Roberts agreed to pause the restrictions known as Title 42 after a group of states with Republican attorneys general said lifting the measure would saddle their states with additional costs if more migrants entered.

A U.S. judge ruled last month that Title 42, which blocks many migrants from seeking asylum, is unlawful, but the states sought to overturn that decision.

The Supreme Court gave both sides in the legal dispute until Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET to respond. The order means Title 42 will stay in place as the legal arguments play out.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden had been preparing for the order to end on Wednesday and press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a news conference that the White House was seeking more than $3 billion US ($4.1 billion Cdn) from Congress to pay for additional personnel, technology, migrant holding facilities and transportation at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The push for additional resources came as U.S. authorities had been preparing for the possibility of 9,000 to 14,000 migrants per day trying to cross into the United States if Title 42 was lifted, around double the current rate.

A group of people climb up a rocky to a fence where a line of people and border guards are standing.
Migrants cross the U.S.-Mexico border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on Monday. (Christian Chavez/The Associated Press)

Pandemic-era policy still in place

Title 42, aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, was issued in March 2020 under former Republican president Donald Trump, an immigration restrictionist. Biden, a Democrat, kept it in place for more than a year.

The Biden administration has been weighing plans to prepare for the end of Title 42, with government officials privately discussing several Trump-style plans to deter people from crossing, including barring single adults seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Jean-Pierre declined to say whether plans to restrict asylum access are moving ahead, but said there would be additional announcements on Tuesday.

Dozens of people stand, sit on folding chairs, or lie under blankets on the floor of a large room.
Venezuelan migrants stand in a church set up as a temporary shelter in Ciudad Juarez on Sunday. The group was waiting for the announcement that Title 42 had lifted before attempting to cross the U.S. border. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week updated a six-pillar plan that calls for the expanded use of a fast-track deportation process.

The revised DHS plan also suggests there could be expansion of legal pathways for migrants to enter the country from abroad, similar to a program launched for Venezuelans in October.

Jean-Pierre stressed that migrants entering illegally could still be removed via other means even if Title 42 is eventually no longer in place.

“We know smugglers will try to spread misinformation to take advantage of these vulnerable migrants,” she said. “But I want to be very clear here. The fact is that the removal of Title 42 does not mean the border is open.”

Tens of thousands waiting to cross border

Since Biden took office in January 2021, about half of the roughly four million migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border — a record number — have been expelled under Title 42,  while the other half have been allowed into the United States to pursue their immigration cases.

Mexico only accepts the return of certain nationalities, including some Central Americans and, more recently, Venezuelans.

For months, El Paso, Texas, has been receiving large groups of asylum-seeking migrants, including many Nicaraguans who cannot be expelled to Mexico.

Colourful tents are erected close to the edge of a river. Across the river is a steep hill leading up to an overpass.
Venezuelan migrants, some expelled from the U.S. to Mexico under Title 42 and others who have not yet attempted to cross into the U.S., are seen at a camp on the banks of the Rio Bravo river in Ciudad Juarez on Nov. 24. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

On Saturday, the city’s mayor declared a state of emergency to move migrants from city streets as temperatures have dropped below freezing.

U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose South Texas district borders Mexico, has said U.S. border officials told him that an estimated 50,000 people are waiting in Mexico for the chance to cross.

Churches and shelters house migrants

Among those waiting were about 200 Venezuelans who recently have been sleeping at a church in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city across the border from El Paso, in anticipation of the possible end of Title 42.

“We’ve suffered so much since we left,” said Emily Rivas, a Venezuelan woman staying at the church with her husband and two children.

People lie under red blankets on the floor of a barren room. Some are looking at their cellphones while others talk to each other.
Venezuelan migrants rest in an old warehouse being used as a shelter in Ciudad Juarez on Dec. 1. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

In El Paso, shelters have struggled to house newcomers even as many are ultimately headed to join relatives in other parts of the country.

Rescue Mission of El Paso, a shelter near the border, last week housed 280 people, far beyond its 190-person capacity. People slept on cots and air mattresses in the chapel, library and conference rooms, said Nicole Reulet, the shelter’s marketing director, in an interview with Reuters.

“We have people where we tell them, ‘We have no room,’ ” she said. “They beg for a place on the floor.”

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