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The End of America’s Title 42: ‘Immigration Needs to be Treated as a Humanitarian Crisis Rather than a Political Football’

Under Title 42, many migrants to the US were blocked from requesting asylum at all – what lies ahead with the policy expiring?

Migrants line-up between a barbed-wire barrier and the border fence at the US-Mexico border, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on 9 May 2023. Photo: Christian Chavez/AP/Alamy

The End of America’s Title 42Immigration Needs to be Treated as a Humanitarian Crisis Rather than a Political Football

Under Title 42, many migrants to the US were blocked from requesting asylum at all – what lies ahead with the policy expiring?

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The UK is not the only country facing immigration challenges. In fact, our problems are dwarfed by those facing the US, which for years has grappled with a steady inflow of migrants along the US-Mexico border.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s own figures, illegal border crossings in the past fiscal year surpassed 2.3 million, the highest number ever, while America is also grappling with an unprecedented backlog of nearly 850,000 asylum cases waiting to be adjudicated. 

These high numbers prevail, despite the existence for the past few years of a Trump administration immigration policy known as Title 42, introduced during the pandemic. This allowed the US Government to expel nearly 2.5 million migrants who have arrived at the southern border since 2020 on health grounds, before they had a chance to apply for asylum. 

These numbers may be about to explode today, when Title 42 is set to expire. Under Title 42, many migrants were blocked from requesting asylum at all. With it lifted, the US will return to a policy in which migrants are screened to determine the validity of asylum applications and only deported once it is determined that they do not qualify.

Despite Republican-led appeals for the measure to be extended on an emergency basis, the Biden administration has decided that the measure can no longer be justified, given that the pandemic is now officially over. Across the southern border, local governments and federal authorities are bracing themselves for a massive new influx of migrants. 

US officials are reportedly expecting arrivals to rise to more than 10,000 per day in May, up from about 5,000 per day in March. 

Several cities further away from the border have declared states of emergency. This includes New York and Chicago, where thousands of migrants have been bussed from the state of Texas, and which are now expecting to receive more.

The Republican Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has argued that cities like New York and Chicago, led by Democrats who like to champion the cause of migrants, need to do their share in support of overrun border communities. If they don’t like it, he contends, they should put more pressure on President Biden to come up with better solutions to control the border. 

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Leading the effort to create a bipartisan solution to the problem are Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a former Democrat who has now become an independent. They have put forward a bill designed to appeal to both Republicans and Democrats, which would allow at least a one-year extension of Title 42-type provisions, alongside allocating at least $25 billion in additional funding to border security agencies.

It would also create a path to citizenship for more than two million so called ‘Dreamers’ who immigrated to the US as children without documentation. 

In addition, the framework would provide funding to accelerate the processing of asylum seekers and to hire additional asylum officers and immigration judges. It also includes provisions that would allow migrants who aren’t eligible for asylum to be quickly removed, reducing the current months-long process for adjudicating claims. 

Speaking at an event in Arizona last weekend, Senator Sinema argued that the bill could help several problems at once – improve security along the border; give better protection to vulnerable border communities suffering most from uncontrolled immigration; resolve the status of the undocumented Dreamers who have been left in limbo for far too long; provide a more efficient visa and asylum system, to reduce waiting times and provide a safer, legal route for migrants and asylum seekers to enter the US; and also alleviate the current labour shortages in the US, in a way which would benefit the US economy.

In theory, the bill should offer something for everyone. 

But she lamented that, instead, too many politicians in both parties were using the immigration crisis for their own political ends. They were responding to the issue on a political basis rather than as a humanitarian crisis. Any sustainable solution needed to address the root causes of the problem – requiring proposals both to improve border security and provide better legal migration routes. Americans were “hungry” for bipartisan collaboration on the issue. 

Unfortunately, this seems unlikely to happen. Many Republicans still object to the idea of giving any undocumented immigrants a legal pathway to citizenship. Many also see migration as an attractive political weapon against the Biden administration, with a recent poll in seven election battleground states indicating that just 32% of voters approve of Biden’s handling of the border, while 58% disapprove. 

On the Democrat side, there is resistance by progressives to any notion of extending Title 42-like provisions, even on an emergency basis.

Immigrant advocates also worry that speeding up asylum processing to a 72-hour turnaround time-frame would infringe on the due process rights of asylum seekers, forcing snap decisions with potential life-or-death consequences.

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Given that the bill needs at least 60 votes to pass in the Senate, these divides don’t bode well for its prospects. 

The Biden administration has, in fact, introduced several new measures to prepare for the expected new influx alongside the end of Title 42. These include negotiating a new return agreement with Mexico, new measures to expedite screening of asylum seekers and allow the deportation of failed applicants, the opening of new processing centres in Colombia and Guatemala, measures to  prevent migrants who are deported from re-entering the US for at least five years, deeming them “presumed ineligible for asylum”, and to clamp down on criminal trafficking gangs.

The administration has also announced that it will send 1,500 troops to support agencies along the southern border. But Senator Sinema described this as too little, too late –  adding that 1,500 extra troops would hardly make a difference along the 2,000-mile long border. 

Asked earlier this week if the US was ready for the expected surge, President Biden said: “We’re doing all we can. The answer is it remains to be seen.” Given the potential scale of the new influx, this seems like relying on a wing and a prayer. 

Nevertheless, at least in the US, there remain many politicians, like Senator Sinema, who recognise the immigration problem as fundamentally a humanitarian one, rather than purely a security one, and are insisting that it should not be weaponised for political ends.

Her approach stands in stark contrast to that of the UK Government, which still prioritises the security angle over the humanitarian one; is resistant to providing more accessible legal pathways to entry to the UK – despite our own labour shortages – is threatening to ignore important human rights provisions in order to allow the swift deportation of migrants; and in some of its rhetoric, barely seems to recognise migrants as human beings at all. 

As Senator Sinema has recognised, the only sustainable immigration solution is one which tackles the problem in all its dimensions, providing security, protection and jobs. 

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