US asks court to end asylum limits, with a short delay

Cities prepare for the end of the pandemic-era immigration policy despite a Supreme Court hold. (CNN, KVIA)
Published: Dec. 20, 2022 at 5:58 AM MST|Updated: Dec. 20, 2022 at 6:04 PM MST
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EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Tensions remained high at the U.S-Mexico border Tuesday amid uncertainty over the future of restrictions on asylum-seekers, with the Biden administration asking the Supreme Court not to lift the limits before Christmas.

The U.S. government made its plea in a filing a day after Chief Justice John Roberts issued a temporary order to keep the pandemic-era limits on migrants in place. Before Roberts issued that order, the restrictions had been slated to expire Wednesday.

The federal government acknowledged that ending the restrictions will likely lead to “disruption and a temporary increase in unlawful border crossings.” But the government asked the court to reject a last-minute effort by a group of conservative-leaning states to maintain a measure that allows officials to expel many but not all asylum-seekers.

Migrants have been denied rights to seek asylum guaranteed by U.S. and international law 2.5 million times since March 2020 on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19 under a public-health rule called Title 42.

With the decision on what comes next going down to the wire, pressure is building in communities along both sides of the U.S-Mexico border.

In El Paso, Democratic Mayor Oscar Leeser warned that shelters across the border in Ciudad Juárez were packed to capacity with an estimated 20,000 migrants who are prepared to cross into the U.S.

The city rushed to expand its ability to accommodate more migrants by converting large buildings into shelters, as the Red Cross brings in 10,000 cots. Local officials also hope to relieve pressure on area shelters by chartering buses to other large cities in Texas or nearby states, bringing migrants a step closer to relatives and sponsors in coordination with nonprofit groups.

“We will continue to be prepared for whatever is coming through,” Leeser said.

Texas National Guard members, deployed by the state to El Paso this week, used razor wire on Tuesday to cordon off a gap in the border fence along a bank of the Rio Grande that became a popular crossing point in recent days for migrants who waded through shallow waters to approach immigration officials. They used a loudspeaker to announce in Spanish that it’s illegal to cross there.

Texas said it was sending 400 National Guard personnel to the border city after local officials declared a state of emergency. Leeser said the declaration was aimed largely at protecting vulnerable migrants, while the deployment included forces used to “repel and turn-back illegal immigrants,” according to a Texas National Guard statement.

Immigration advocates have said that the Title 42 restrictions, imposed under provisions of a 1944 health law, go against American and international obligations to people fleeing to the U.S. to escape persecution — and that the pretext is outdated as coronavirus treatments improve. They sued to end the use of Title 42; a federal judge in November sided with them and set the Dec. 21 deadline.

Conservative-leaning states appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that an increased numbers of migrants would take a toll on public services such as law enforcement and health care and warned of an “unprecedented calamity” at the southern border. They said the federal government has no plan to deal with an increase in migrants — while in Washington, Republicans are set to take control of the House and make immigration a key issue.

The federal government told the court Tuesday that it has marshaled more resources to the southern border in preparation for the end of Title 42. That includes more Border Patrol processing coordinators, more surveillance and increased security at ports of entry, according to President Joe Biden’s administration.

About 23,000 agents are currently deployed to the southern border, according to the White House.

“The government in no way seeks to minimize the seriousness of that problem,” the Biden administration wrote in its filing the Supreme Court. “But the solution to that immigration problem cannot be to extend indefinitely a public-health measure that all now acknowledge has outlived its public-health justification.”

Yet the government also asked the court to give it some time to prepare if it decides to allow the restrictions to be lifted. Should the Supreme Court act before Friday, the government wants the restrictions in place until the end of Dec. 27. If the court acts on Friday or later, the government wants the limits to remain until the second business day following such an order. Either timeline — if granted — would mean Title 42 would be in place until after Christmas.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups pushing to end the use of Title 42 told the Supreme Court on Tuesday that keeping the restrictions in place threatens “further harm to noncitizens.” Like the government, they faulted the states’ timing of their appeal, saying they waited too long to try to intervene and that by their very delay they were threatening “disruption.”

At a church-affiliated shelter in El Paso a few blocks from the border, the Rev. Michael Gallagher said local faith leaders have been trying to pool resources and open up empty space. On Tuesday, a gym at Sacred Heart Church gave shelter to 200 migrants — mostly women and children.

Outside the church Monday, Jose Natera, a 48-year-old handyman from the Venezuelan town of Guaicaipuro, said he traveled for three months to reach El Paso, sometimes on foot, with no money or sponsors to take him further.

“I have to stop here until I can get a ticket” out, he said.

The Roman Catholic bishop of El Paso, Mark Seitz, expressed concern that the delay in ending the limits would keep migrants who had to flee their homes from even making a case for protection in the U.S., after years of pent-up need.

“What happens now with all those on their way?” he said.

Title 42 restrictions have applied to all nationalities but have fallen disproportionately on those from countries that Mexico has agreed to take back: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and, more recently Venezuela, in addition to Mexico.

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Santana reported from Washington, D.C. Juan Lozano in Houston and Alicia Fernández in Ciudad Juárez contributed to this report.