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 at the U.S.-Mexico border that have prevented hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking asylum should be kept in place for now, siding with Republicans who brought a legal challenge.

The restrictions, known as Title 42, were implemented under former Republican president Donald Trump in March 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and gave border officials the ability to rapidly expel migrants to Mexico without a chance of seeking U.S. asylum.

U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, had campaigned on overturning Trump’s hardline immigration measures before taking office in 2021 but kept Title 42 in place for more than a year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said earlier this year that Title 42 was no longer needed for public health reasons and the Biden administration has said they want it to end, but will abide with any court rulings.

A federal judge last month ruled Title 42 was unlawful in response to a lawsuit originally by asylum-seeking migrants represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The judge set the restrictions to be lifted on Wednesday, Dec. 21. But a group of 19 states with Republican attorneys general sought to overturn that decision by intervening in the case and took their request to the conservative-leaning Supreme Court.

Hours later, Chief Justice John Roberts issued a stay that will leave Title 42 in place until further notice from the court. The parties in the legal dispute have until Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET to respond, the court said.

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

After Roberts’ action, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Title 42 “will remain in effect at this time and individuals who attempt to enter the United States unlawfully will continue to be expelled to Mexico.”

The Biden administration had been preparing for Title 42 to end on Wednesday and press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a news conference Monday 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.

After the ruling, the DHS said it still urged Congress to provide the additional funds for border management “while this stage of the litigation proceeds.”

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 push for additional resources came as U.S. authorities had been preparing for the possibility of 9,000 to 14,000 people per day trying to cross into the United States if Title 42 was lifted, Reuters and other outlets reported this month, around double the current rate.

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.

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.

WATCH | Migrants surge to U.S.-Mexico border: 

U.S.-Mexico border sees surge of migrants as pandemic policy set to expire

The surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border is expected to increase as a pandemic policy known as Title 42 ends. Critics, including Democratic senators, are calling on the Biden administration to prioritize the issue.

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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