The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Friday that it will be terminating the Title 42 border policy. The U.S. government has used this policy to turn away asylum seekers and migrants over 1.7 million times since March 2020. The policy will end on May 23 to give the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) time to implement the termination. After May 23, individuals approaching the border will be processed normally as they were before Title 42 went into place.
Title 42 refers to an obscure public health law that allowed the government to invoke the COVID-19 pandemic to turn away people seeking refuge in the United States. Ending Title 42 is a critical step in reforming an asylum process that has been decimated over the last six years.
The Trump administration first implemented Title 42 after pressuring the CDC to use it under the guise of protecting the United States from the spread of COVID-19. From the start, experts asserted that this was a false premise. Even with Title 42 in place, millions of individuals crossed our borders and entered our airports each month, belying the argument that Title 42 was necessary.
In practice, many of those arrested under Title 42 were put in immigration detention centers inside the United States, sometimes for weeks at a time. They were then expelled using so-called “lateral flights,” which involved putting the individuals on airplanes in one border area of the United States and flying them to another border area to be expelled there. These policies led to people being placed in the exact kind of congregate settings that the CDC said should be avoided to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Under Title 42, most migrants were expelled to Mexico, which agreed early in the pandemic to accept Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans expelled from the United States. Many of these people, desperate to seek safety in the United States, then immediately crossed the border again. At the start of the pandemic, just 7% of people apprehended after crossing the border were on their second or higher attempt to cross. Under Title 42, that figure rose to 27%, the highest level in decades.
One of the reasons that migrants have tried to cross so often is that they have not been able to safely wait in Mexico for Title 42 to end. Human rights organizations have reported that nearly 10,000 people were subjected to horrific abuses when they were turned back to Mexico, including kidnapping, torture rape, and other abuses. Title 42 also shuttered ports of entry to most asylum seekers. For many people, the only way to access the asylum process is to cross the border between ports of entry and hope they will not be expelled.
In conjunction with the CDC’s announcement about the end of Title 42, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also issued a statement, indicating that the government would use the next two months to prepare for the termination. Mayorkas emphasized that the order and the decision to terminate it was the CDC’s—and not DHS or any other government agency.
Advocates have been calling on the Biden administration to end Title 42 since he entered office, with increasing support from congressional Democrats and other political leaders. While they largely applaud today’s announcements, some continue to advocate for the order to be lifted immediately, as DHS Secretary Mayorkas indicated in his statement that expulsions will continue between now and May 23, 2022.
As it prepares for the end of Title 42, DHS laid out its plans for an anticipated increase in people coming to the U.S. southern border. While these plans are independent of the CDC’s announcement, they are clearly intended to demonstrate the government’s ability to handle an increase in migration. DHS said it will increase the number of enforcement officers at the border, stand up “soft-sided” processing centers, and implement other policies to speed up processing of individuals seeking asylum.
Title 42 is and always was an inhumane policy that subjected an unknown number of individuals to violence and uncertainty. It should have been ended long ago, but its termination is a welcome step towards the restarting of the United States’ asylum process.