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On the Texas border, Democrats split on possible end to Title 42 policy

Migrants leave Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico, Oct. 27, 2021, as they continue their trek north toward Mexico's northern states and the U.S. border. The Biden administration struck agreement with Mexico to reinstate a Trump-era border policy next week that forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Marco Ugarte
Migrants leave Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico, Oct. 27, 2021, as they continue their trek north toward Mexico's northern states and the U.S. border. The Biden administration struck agreement with Mexico to reinstate a Trump-era border policy next week that forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court, U.S. officials said Thursday.

As the Biden administration is expected to end a controversial directive that’s led to the rapid expulsion of asylum seekers at the border, a Texas Democrat sees the move as a possible window toward reimagining some aspects of current U.S. asylum policy.

But elsewhere in Texas, some Democrats are balking at the proposal and say the shift will lead to an ever-increasing climb in migrants seeking entry into the United States.

According to multiple reports, the Biden administration will end the policy — generally referred to as Title 42 after a provision in the United States Code — in late May. Title 42 was put in place in March of 2020 as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and has been kept in effect despite a drop in cases domestically. Civil and immigrant rights groups have criticized the policy because it denies immigrants their legal right to seek asylum in the United States.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso, said Thursday morning that, while ending the policy is past due, it presents an opportunity to create a civilian division within the Department of Homeland Security to help process asylum seekers at the border. Escobar said that would ease the strain on U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection officers, who are often charged with processing the migrants — a duty that takes away from their stated missions of securing the border and processing legal entry and trade.

“What I am calling for is processing centers that are not run by law enforcement and that are instead completely run by civilian personnel,” she said Thursday during a call with reporters. “There is an opportunity for us to do this differently. We cannot continue to do things the same way over and over and expect a different result.”

Escobar said her suggestion isn’t new. She talked to former acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan about the same idea in 2019, when the Trump administration was dealing with a large number of unauthorized immigrants at the border, most of whom were also seeking asylum.

“[He] who supported my idea of creating a civilian workforce within DHS at Central Processing Centers to help process migrants in order to alleviate what I call the mission creep that has happened with Border Patrol agents and [Office of Field Operations] officers who are caring for vulnerable populations in their custody,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio, has also called for the end of Title 42, along with an end to what he called the previous administration’s “xenophobic” policies.

Castro, a member of the U.S. Congressional Hispanic Caucus, joined fellow members in urging the Centers for Disease Control, State Department, DHS and other agencies to immediately end the policy.

“Whether they are fleeing violence from a Russian dictator or a drug cartel, asylum seekers must have a chance to rebuild their lives in safety. The CHC stands ready to work with you to ensure there are safe and secure legal pathways for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.” Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote Tuesday.

But at least two Texas Democrats have asked the Biden administration to hold off on ending the policy until apprehensions and encounters at the southern border have leveled off. U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, and Vicente Gonzales, a Democrat from McAllen, joined their Republican colleagues earlier this week in a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

“We understand that this legal authority is temporary and tied to the COVID-19 public health emergency, but DHS appears unprepared to handle a likely unprecedented increase in apprehensions along the southwest border,” they wrote. “At the current levels of cross-border migration, DHS currently lacks adequate capacity to process and detain all migrants apprehended along the southwest border … Furthermore, small border communities lack the appropriate housing, transportation, and healthcare infrastructure to manage the ongoing release of migrant populations into their jurisdictions.”

The letter was spearheaded by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, and U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, whose district borders Escobar’s and runs from East El Paso to San Antonio.

The Biden administration’s plans to end Title 42 come as the Texas sectors of the U.S. Border Patrol remain the busiest on the border for unauthorized crossings or attempted crossings.

Through the first five months of the federal government’s current fiscal year, which began in October, agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector have encountered 97,253 families or single adults subject to Title 42 protocols, according to Customs and Border Protection data updated March 3.

That’s nearly 18,000 more than the next highest total of about 79,300 in the Tucson, Arizona sector. The Del Rio and El Paso sectors have also seen high numbers, at 63,851 and 57,340, respectively. (The El Paso sector includes New Mexico.)

Officials in the Department of Homeland Security have shared their own concerns over a lack of resources, Texas Public Radio reported. But immigrant rights groups, including Human Rights First, said the administration has had ample time to plan for the policy’s end.

“One, this focus on numbers is dehumanizing and two, the Department of Homeland Security has been appropriated additional funds [and]they've had over a year to plan for the end of Title 42," Kennji Kizuka, an immigration advocate with Human Rights First, told TPR.

Escobar said the increase in traffic at the southern border is a result of Republicans’ reluctance to consider expanding legal immigration or address comprehensive reform.

“I've been in Congress for three years and there is an absolute unwillingness by the majority of my colleagues to provide legal pathways. They will tell me outright they're absolutely uninterested,” she said. “When we limit legal pathways we should not be surprised that there is an increase in irregular migration.”

Escobar added that she’s concerned Gov. Greg Abbott will use the lifting of Title 42 as an excuse to install more Texas National Guard troops at the state’s southern border in an expansion of his Operation Lone Star. The controversial program began last year and costs state taxpayers millions of dollars every week. In addition to using National Guard troops for border security efforts, it also instructs Texas DPS officers to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges. But several state charges have been dropped due to prosecutorial errors, Texas Tribune reported.

“Operation Lone Star is an absolute abuse of our Texas National Guard,” Escobar said. “I think it ultimately will diminish our readiness in the face of true national security threats and emergencies. It's not just an abuse, but I think it has highlighted the extreme partisanship with which Governor Abbott views his role as governor.”

On Wednesday Abbott tweeted: “It's obvious Biden doesn’t have a clue about how to stop the influx of illegal immigrants & deadly drugs from pouring into the U.S.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he will deploy more National Guard Units to the border or Escobar’s statements about the operation.

Texas Public Radio’s Sofía Sánchez contributed to this report.

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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Julián Aguilar