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A senior Department of Homeland Security official is predicting the number of migrant encounters at the southern border will decrease once the Biden administration lifts the Title 42 public health order later this month, despite broader predictions of a massive migrant surge in the months ahead.
Blas Nunez-Neto, acting assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, was quizzed by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing about a halt to Title 42. The order has been used since March 2020 to expel a majority of migrants at the southern border due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Title 42 has had a really interesting effect on migration, in that, because of the number of repeat border crossers we see, it has actually inflated our numbers at the border,” Nunez-Neto said.
He said that data show that Title 42 had prompted an increase in migration, particularly from Mexico, due to the lack of consequences migrants face for attempting to enter the U.S. while the order is in effect.
“So eliminating it will then, you think, decrease the amount of illegal immigration?” Hawley asked.
Nunez-Neto claimed that as the Biden administration shifts to expedited removal instead of Title 42 there will be a drop in encounters at the border. Expedited removal is a process used to deport recent migrants unless they claim asylum and pass a screening.
“I think, over time, once we start reimposing significant immigration consequences on people at the border through our use of expedited removal, particularly for single adults and particularly for those from Mexico, you are going to see a decrease,” Nunez-Neto said. The exchange was first noted by The Washington Post.
Hawley was not convinced.
“That is news, ladies and gentlemen,” Hawley marveled. “You still clearly want to rescind Title 42, and you think that rescinding it will decrease illegal immigration at the border.”
The statement marks a shift in tone from the administration, which has been stressing how it is planning to deal with a surge in migration. It has said it is planning for up to 18,000 migrant encounters a day once the order halts. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has also said it expects arrivals to potentially triple.
However, officials and some immigration experts have said for months that once Title 42 ends there may be a dip in the number of encounters due to a decrease in repeat attempts at entry. Migrants who are expelled due to Title 42 face no punishment for attempting to cross the border, so many will make multiple attempts. As a result, that inflates the number of border encounters each month.
Customs and Border Protection said that of 221,303 migrant encounters in March, only 159,900 were “unique” encounters. Of the 221,303, 28% had at least one prior encounter in the past 12 months, compared to a recidivism rate of 14% between FY 2014-2019.
That has led to some speculation that when Title 42 drops the overall number of encounters could drop — even if the number of individual migrants coming to the border increases.
Republicans and some Democrats have been urging the Biden administration to reverse course on ending Title 42, warning that it will not only encourage more migrants to flood to the border but will lead to a significantly higher number being released into the country.
The Biden administration has said Title 42 is a public health order and not an immigration order and has called on Congress to pass immigration reforms instead. Democrats introduced an administration-backed bill last year that included a massive amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, but it failed due to a lack of any Republican support.
A number of Democrats have signed onto a bill that would stop the Biden administration from ending the order until 60 days after the Centers for Disease Control has ended its public health emergency for COVID-19 and has an adequate plan in place.
Meanwhile, 21 Republican states have sued to block a halt to the order. A hearing on the case is scheduled for next week.