After a year of delays, Title 42 lifted

A group of apprehended undocumented immigrants lineup at the U.S.-Mexico border as they prepare to walk back into Mexico after being expelled from the U.S. under Title 42. Staff photo by Maisie Crow.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Title 42, the controversial pandemic-era policy that called for the immediate expulsion of migrants as a public health measure, is set to end on Thursday after a year of court battles over its suspension. The change in policy has prompted questions about how local law enforcement should respond — and how the landscape of American immigration policy might shift in its wake.

Title 42 has been a law on the books since 1944, authorizing the United States surgeon general to restrict immigration if deemed necessary to prevent the spread of infectious disease. The law was invoked for the first time in its 76 years by the Trump administration in March 2020, which hobbled the asylum process and authorized immigration officials to “immediately expel” migrants from the country.

Proponents of the law have fought to keep it in place, anticipating a significant surge in migration to the U.S.-Mexico border. The number of migrants attempting to cross the border, both at ports of entry and illegally, has steadily risen as the deadline approaches. Over 244,000 migrants have been “expelled” from the United States into Mexico so far this year. By contrast, the number of migrants returned to Canada was 159.

While El Paso has already declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the policy’s end, expecting a massive influx of asylum-seekers at the crossing from Juarez, officials do not foresee a similar surge at the Presidio Port of Entry.

“There’s no indication that we’re going to have any kind of numbers that they’re seeing in other areas,” said Presidio County Judge Joe Portillo, noting the remoteness of the location and inhospitable nature of the terrain. “We’re not an attractive place to cross. The desert is hot. We don’t have a lot of resources. It’s very difficult to traverse.”

Landon Hutchens, public affairs officer for CBP’s El Paso Sector, said he expected “normal operations” in the Big Bend region in the coming days. The remote region has seen a downtick in migrant crossings, contrasted with other spots along the border.

“The Big Bend Sector as a whole has had less numbers than last year,” said Hutchens. “And so it’s been one of the few sectors that have actually been down in traffic.”

Nevertheless, the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) took to Facebook on Tuesday to say that it “will be increasing patrols along highways and U.S.-Mexico borders due to the concerns of Title 42 ending,” in a post that also showcased the apprehension of six undocumented immigrants 25 miles south of Marfa. The PCSO did not return multiple requests for comment from The Sentinel requesting details on the department’s expanded presence.

In neighboring Brewster County, Sheriff Ronny Dodson didn’t share their concerns. “We don’t have a port of entry or anything, so I don’t see us getting inundated,” he said.

Dodson explained that the biggest difference he’d observed before and after the implementation of Title 42 is that his office had less involvement with processing immigration-related offenses –– individuals under arrest for entering the country illegally or for human smuggling were immediately turned over to Customs and Border Protection.

Though he didn’t anticipate a major influx with the expiration of the law, his office would remain vigilant. “We’ve still got our smuggling and our trafficking going on,” Dodson said.

The policy, and its continued use ostensibly as a public health measure, has been controversial since its implementation at the start of the pandemic. Detractors say that the virtual shutdown of the asylum process puts people in danger — the organization Human Rights Now counted 13,000 incidents of torture, rape and violence against people returned to Mexico under the law.

The Centers for Disease Control announced in April 2022 that it would be suspending the order on public health grounds, pledging instead that the Department of Homeland Security would be assisting in making sure proper COVID-prevention measures were enacted at the border.

In May of last year, 24 states — the majority of which were not border states — sued the Biden administration in an attempt to block Title 42’s expiration. The law pinballed through the courts until November of 2022, when a federal judge ruled to lift the ban, arguing, among other points, that the law unfairly targeted the relatively small percentage of immigrants who cross the border on foot.

Just days after it was set to expire, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of keeping it in place a few months longer, and a final date of May 11 was eventually set.

In Texas, all eyes were on El Paso this week as immigration authorities handed out flyers to a thousand recent migrants encouraging them to turn themselves into Customs and Border Protection, in order to continue “on the correct immigration path.”

The surge of law enforcement along the Texas-Mexico border has been in the works for years. In 2021, the state government launched Operation Lone Star, a rolling cash infusion for local governments along the border that to date has cost the state government over $4 billion,including around $360 million diverted from the state’s prison system. Local law enforcement agencies in Texas also receive funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s $90 million Operation Stonegarden program. Local governments in the Big Bend region have applied for those funds to finance a multitude of projects, from new vehicles and security equipment to legal aides to help county officials with casework.