The coronavirus pandemic is still bad enough that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced this week that foreign students will be granted a waiver for the next school year, allowing them to stay in the U.S. even if their classes are all online.
ICE is also treating the pandemic as very real when it comes to detention, cutting its capacity for holding immigrants awaiting deportation nearly in half.
Yet another agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, says it will maintain a web of pandemic waivers and exceptions, including special rules on interpreters for asylum cases, and more leeway on presenting follow-up evidence to agency officers.
For Homeland Security, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be raging everywhere but at the border, where the Biden administration says things have improved enough that next month it will lift the pandemic shutdown, officially known as Title 42.
Homeland Security officials said they are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in figuring out which pandemic policies to maintain.
The CDC, for its part, is the agency that actually canceled the Title 42 border emergency, saying that despite the continued COVID spread worldwide, the U.S., armed with vaccines and treatments, is better able to handle the threat of spread from illegal immigrants.
But the CDC still says face masks are “required” for airplane travel, and negative COVID tests are mandatory for international arrivals. A federal judge on Monday voided the mask mandate on public transportation, and the administration is weighing an appeal, but the Transportation Security Administration isn’t enforcing the mandate.
“The only place on the planet where Democrats say COVID is over is on our southern border,” Sen. Mitch McConnell said in a speech after CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s April 1 border decision.
Title 42, instituted by the Trump administration, allowed Homeland Security to quickly expel illegal immigrants nabbed at the border, including those who normally would have been allowed to apply for asylum.
Under the Trump administration, nearly every migrant was expelled. Under the Biden team, that’s dropped to about half of migrants. In March, of 221,303 unauthorized border crossers encountered, 109,549 were expelled under Title 42.
Customs and Border Protection declined to release numbers on the percent of illegal immigrants testing positive for COVID, but during last year’s delta variant surge, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said it was about one in five.
If that rate is still operative, and given the number of illegal crossers CBP is anticipating, that could mean 100,000 new COVID cases a month introduced into the U.S. from the border.
The chief risk at the border is the overcrowded cells where migrants are detained while awaiting processing.
Dr. Walensky acknowledged those risks will rise with the end of Title 42, but said that is acceptable because “the overall public health landscape in the United States has changed.”
“Other current public health mitigation measures sufficiently reduce the serious danger of introduction, transmission and spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 as a result of the entry of covered noncitizens,” Dr. Walensky said.
Jon Feere, a former chief of staff at ICE in the Trump administration, said if COVID has improved enough to not worry about crowded Border Patrol facilities, then ICE should be able to boost its detention capacity as well.
“Every single pandemic-related policy at DHS must be revisited,” he said.
The public is skeptical of the administration’s decision-making.
A Golden/TIPP survey found 43% opposed the end of Title 42, including 29% who were strongly opposed. The survey found 39% in support, with 19% of those “strongly” so.
Men were about evenly divided on the issue, but women were decidedly opposed to ending the policy, the early April poll found.
Still to be seen is how judges will treat the issue, with challenges already brewing in federal courts.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has sought a preliminary injunction that would keep Title 42 in place, pointing to the dissonance in decision-making, saying the administration is still trying to enforce vaccine mandates and is still discharging American troops who say they have religious objections.
“Amazingly, the ‘science’ underlying these discordant COVID-19 measures just happens to align perfectly with the administration’s political assessments of the relative desirability of those measures for their partisan objective,” Arizona and a coalition of other Republican-led states told the court.
The Justice Department has yet to file its response in the case.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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