The US supreme court on Monday said Covid-era restrictions at the US-Mexico border that were set to end on Wednesday should stay in place, at least temporarily, as a Republican legal challenge moves forward.
The development came just as the White House had been attempting to prepare for an increase in the number of migrant crossings, even as some border cities were struggling to cope with undocumented people arriving and being obliged to sleep on the streets in freezing weather, especially El Paso in west Texas in recent months.
John Roberts, the chief justice of the court, on Monday, at the request of Republican officials in 19 states, blocked the Biden administration from ending a pandemic-era policy of rapidly expelling most migrants apprehended or turning themselves in at the US-Mexico border .
The Republican officials led by the attorneys general in Arizona and Louisiana asked the supreme court to act after a federal appeals court on Friday declined to put on hold a judge’s ruling last month that invalidated an emergency order known as Title 42. The policy was set to expire Wednesday.
A group of Republican-led states sought to overturn last month’s ruling by intervening in a case originally brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of migrants denied entry under the Title 42 public health rule.
The supreme court gave the parties in the legal dispute until Tuesday at 5pm ET to respond.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a press conference Monday that the White House was seeking more than $3bn from Congress to pay for additional personnel, technology, migrant holding facilities and transportation at the US-Mexico border.
The push for additional resources came as US authorities had been preparing for the possibility of 9,000-14,000 undocumented people a day trying to cross into the US if Title 42 was lifted, around double the current rate, following a build-up of people on the Mexican side of the border.
Title 42’s originally-stated aim was to slow the spread of Covid-19 and was issued in March 2020 under Donald Trump, the Republican former US president, which proved to be an effective anti-immigration tool in line with his swath of hardline policies.
The rule has ended up being kept it in place by the Biden administration, amid policy and legal wrangling in Washington, and despite the protests of pressure groups that Title 42 is not an appropriate health measure and has caused widespread humanitarian hardship along the border for migrants fleeing dangerous and desperate circumstances.
The Biden administration has been weighing plans to prepare for Title 42’s end, with government officials privately discussing several Trump-style plans to deter people from crossing, including barring single adults seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border.
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week updated a six-pillar plan that calls for the expanded use of a fast-track deportation process. The revised DHS plan also suggests there could be expansion of legal pathways for migrants to enter the country from abroad, similar to a program launched for Venezuelans in October.
Amid signals that the White House continues to prioritize a message of securing the border and reducing irregular immigration, Jean-Pierre noted that migrants entering unlawfully could still be removed via other means even if eventually Title 42 goes away.
Since Biden took office in January 2021, about half of the roughly 4 million migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border – a record number – have been expelled under Title 42 while the other half have been allowed into the US to pursue their immigration cases.
Mexico only accepts the return of certain nationalities, including some Central Americans and, more recently, Venezuelans.
For months, El Paso has been receiving large groups of asylum-seeking migrants, including many Nicaraguans who cannot legally be expelled to Mexico.
On Saturday, the city’s mayor declared a state of emergency as a way of freeing up extra funding to move migrants from city streets
Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat on the border who faced down midterm challenges from more progressive Democrats, has said US border officials told him that an estimated 50,000 people are currently waiting in Mexico for the chance to cross into the US.