Expected Migrant Increase to Put Already Strained Federal Border Resources to the Test
With the policy known as Title 42 coming to an end, the Biden administration is turning to employees already "stressed beyond anything they have ever experienced."
The Biden administration is once again expressing confidence it has the personnel and resources necessary to handle a significant increase in migrants arriving at the southern border when a pandemic-era expulsion policy expires next week, while still conceding some difficulties could lie ahead.
The Homeland Security Department has in recent months deployed 2,500 personnel from within its own ranks, other federal agencies and contractors to the southwest border in preparation for the termination of a policy known as Title 42. The Trump administration first implemented the restrictive provision during the COVID-19 outbreak to immediately expel many undocumented migrants arriving at the border, but it is set to finally come to end Dec. 21 due to a court order. DHS has also hired 1,000 new coordinators to process the record numbers of migrants arriving at the border.
The deployed personnel, contractors and new hires are taking assignments from the Southwest Border Coordination Center, which DHS stood up in February in anticipation of Title 42’s termination. The administration had originally planned to end the policy’s use in May, but was blocked by doing so as part of ongoing litigation. While many lawmakers—primarily Republicans—have criticized the Biden administration for failing to advance its plans, DHS said it has used the intervening months to tweak its operational strategies and implement new efficiencies. Still, the department said it is struggling to maintain order and safety at the border with its resources handling two times their capacity.
“Despite our efforts, our outdated immigration system is under strain,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said this week. “That is true at the federal level, as well as for state, local, [non-governmental organizations], and community partners. In the absence of congressional action to reform the immigration and asylum systems, a significant increase in migrant encounters will strain our system even further.”
Encounters at the border have remained high despite Title 42 allowing the government to reject and turn away most migrants seeking asylum, but the administration is expecting the news of the end of the policy will lead to a renewed interest in individuals fleeing violence, unrest and poverty seeking to enter the United States.
DHS’ reported internal and external deployments to the border—where employees supplement Border Patrol agents and customs officers who regularly report and serve in roles related to meal distribution, medical assessment, hospital watch, personal property management and high capacity transport—have increased significantly since the department first put forward its plan in April. The processing coordinators and contractors have allowed more agents to return to field work, which front-line personnel have long requested. Contracted medical staff increased by 44% in fiscal 2022. While DHS typically seeks volunteers within its own ranks when supplementing staff at the border, it sometimes resorts to mandatory deployments. This has rankled some in the workforce, such as those in the Federal Air Marshals Service.
The Biden administration is pushing for a staffing surge as part of the fiscal 2023 omnibus, the final details of which are currently being negotiated in Congress. Customs and Border Protection has requested funding for 300 new agents, which would mark the first increase since 2011. As part of the fiscal 2022 omnibus spending package, CBP received a 26% increase for its operations budget and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services saw a massive 220% funding spike to hire asylum officers and other staff and to reduce existing backlogs.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents an area struggling to handle large numbers of migrants coming over the border in El Paso, Texas, this week called for “significant more federal resources.” CBP personnel, she said, have been “stressed beyond anything they have ever experienced to date.” Border communities like El Paso have struggled to handle the unprecedented uptick in migrants arriving in their communities, especially as overstretched federal agencies are forced to release many of them through “alternatives to detention” programs. The congresswoman requested short-term emergency shelters staffed and operated by federal personnel. Escobar said she has spoken to appropriators this week about providing funding for such a solution as part of the forthcoming fiscal 2023 omnibus bill.
The department has also sought to update its physical infrastructure, closing 120 gaps in physical barriers and installing 10 tent-like facilities to temporarily house migrants. Changes to asylum screenings and other reforms have led to migrants remaining in CBP custody for 58 hours on average, down 30% from last year. Those changes have saved 70,000 work hours in data entry, DHS said.
In addition to moving its staff, DHS has increased its flights and other transportation of migrants arriving in overcrowded sectors such as El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley to less crowded areas for processing. The administration has ramped up its enforcement efforts, making 237% more referrals for prosecution so far in fiscal 2023 and 6,500 arrests of smugglers in 2022. DHS will also increase its use of expedited removal, boost capacity of non-governmental organizations and better target transnational criminal organizations.
The department has pledged to boost interagency coordination, noting the departments of Justice and State are already executing on key provisions from its original April plan. Those have included diplomatic efforts to deter migrants from arriving at the border, ramping up anti-smuggler activity and reducing disinformation that encourages Central and South Americans to make the dangerous journey.
Republicans repeatedly castigated the Biden administration's efforts as insufficient, saying it has squandered the extra time it had to prepare.
“For a year and a half I have asked Secretary Mayorkas what happens when Title 42 authority goes away, because it is temporary,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said on the Senate floor on Thursday. “What is your plan? And for two years almost I’ve gotten, ‘We're working on it, we're very aware that's temporary, it will go away at some point, we have a plan.’”
Border Patrol encountered 2.4 million in fiscal 2022, an all-time record inflated by the expulsion policy that allowed migrants to make repeated attempts to enter the United States.
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