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Lifting pandemic border restrictions could result in an influx of migrants to U.S.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Biden administration's going to end the sweeping border restrictions known as Title 42. For more than two years, those restrictions allowed immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants at the border without giving them a chance to seek asylum in the U.S. Policy was originally intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that the Trump-era policy will end on May 23, but there are concerns that lifting those restrictions could lead to a record influx of migrants at the southern border.

NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. Joel, thanks so much for being with us.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: First, what do CDC officials say about their decision?

ROSE: Well, basically, that these restrictions are no longer necessary. CDC director Rochelle Walensky wrote that the threat of migrants spreading COVID-19 at the border has, quote, "ceased to be a serious danger to the public health." That was the CDC's reason for authorizing these pandemic restrictions more than two years ago. The Biden administration has made some exceptions, notably for unaccompanied children arriving at the border, but it's largely kept Title 42 in place until now.

SIMON: And what's the reaction been so far?

ROSE: Immigrant advocates and many Democrats welcomed this decision. They have been arguing for a long time that Title 42 was really a tool to manage the flow of migrants at the border and limit access to asylum using public health and COVID essentially as an excuse. Melissa Crow is a lawyer at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of Law.

MELISSA CROW: We commend the Biden administration for getting rid of this racist Trump-era relic. There's absolutely no legal or policy justification for turning back asylum-seekers at the border or for leaving them stranded in some of the most dangerous cities in the world.

ROSE: Immigrant advocates also argue that Title 42 wasn't actually very effective at managing migration. We've seen record-breaking numbers of migrant apprehensions at the southern border last year, even with Title 42 in place.

SIMON: So what happens now that the restrictions are lifted?

ROSE: There is a lot of concern that this will lead to a significant increase in migration. Republicans are using words like chaos and travesty and Armageddon. Here's Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, speaking on the Senate floor this week.

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ROB PORTMAN: The Border Patrol tells me they are already overwhelmed. But they say it will be out of control. Now, some would argue it's already out of control, but it's going to get a whole lot worse.

ROSE: And even some Democrats are nervous, I mean, particularly senators who are facing tight reelection contests this year. They say that the Biden administration should keep Title 42 in place at least until it has a better plan ready to deal with a possible influx.

SIMON: How does the Biden administration react to that?

ROSE: Homeland security officials say they will be ready when Title 42 ends in just over seven weeks. They say they have a plan. They're deploying extra personnel to the border. They're standing up temporary facilities to process migrants. They are at the same time preparing to roll out a new system for handling asylum claims that is supposed to take months instead of years. And homeland security officials also say they may place greater numbers of migrants into the so-called Remain in Mexico program. This is another Trump-era policy that forces asylum-seekers to wait outside of the U.S. for their hearings in immigration courts. You know, but in the short run, there's no question the Biden administration is in a tough spot here. Immigrant advocates and liberal Democrats note that the U.S. has a legal obligation to let migrants apply for asylum. And there is also no doubt that Republicans will try to blame Biden and Democrats for any increase in migration as we head toward midterm elections.

SIMON: NPR's Joel Rose, thanks so much.

ROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.