A Border Patrol agent directs migrants expelled under Title 42 into Juárez on March 24. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

While pandemic-related border travel restrictions will end for foreign nationals with required documents and vaccinations, there is no end in sight to COVID-19 restrictions for migrants who present themselves at the border to seek asylum.

Last week, Biden administration officials announced that non-essential cross-border travel would be permitted by vaccinated foreign nationals in November, after nearly 19 months of restrictions at land borders. The restrictions had significant impacts for binational communities like El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, which are intertwined economically, culturally and socially.

Almost immediately following the announcement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki faced questions about another pandemic-related border restriction — the Biden administration’s continued use of Title 42, a controversial public health provision originally used during the Trump administration which justified the rapid expulsion of asylum seekers as a COVID-19 mitigation strategy.

A reporter asked Psaki during a Wednesday press briefing, “On these new land border crossing rules, what happens if fully vaccinated people present themselves for asylum at an official port of entry? Will they be allowed to ask for asylum and begin their immigration proceedings?” She responded that the border travel restriction announcement only applied to individuals with “proper documentation,” and that Title 42 “remains in place.”

More than 1 million migrants have been turned away at the border through Title 42, which immigrant advocates say violates the right to seek asylum and contributes to human rights atrocities south of the border. Despite the COVID-19 mitigation rationale for the use of Title 42, some public health experts have argued the practice may actually spur COVID-19 transmission, rather than quell it, because of the congregate settings migrants are placed in during the process of expulsion.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said she hopes that the news of border travel restrictions being lifted will mark “the beginning of the end” for Title 42, noting that she has called for it to be lifted since former President Trump’s tenure in office.

“I don’t think Title 42 keeps migrants and agents safer when it comes to COVID, I just don’t,” Escobar said, countering that it exacerbates the risks of COVID-19 for migrants. “Title 42 is detrimental to public health and it prevents people from seeking asylum.”

Timeline: How Title 42 came to be used on asylum seekers

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, who works as policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, is less optimistic about the likelihood of Title 42 ending soon. He said the Biden administration’s support of Title 42 was underscored by their response to thousands of Haitian asylum seekers in Del Rio, Texas, in late September, when they expelled thousands of Haitians back to Haiti through Title 42.

“It would have been much easier for the agency to simply give everybody in the (Del Rio) camp a (COVID) test and vaccinate them than it was to spend millions of dollars on a contract with a private prison company to get planes to expel them back to Haiti,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “The public health rationale for Title 42 is increasingly threadbare, and yet the (Biden) administration has made clear that they believe it’s necessary.” 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top physician, recently spoke out against the Biden administration’s use of Title 42 and the public health pretense that migrants are contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States.  “Expelling (asylum-seekers) is not the solution,” Fauci said in an interview on CNN.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s press secretary, Renae Eze, drew a comparison to Title 42 when asked for Abbott’s reaction to the lifting of border travel restrictions, inaccurately implying that Title 42 had been ended by the Biden administration.

“The hypocrisy and lack of concern shown by President Biden and his administration is staggering,” Eze said of the border travel restriction news, citing a lack of COVID-19 testing and low vaccination rates in the sending countries of migrants. “President Biden must reinstate the Title 42 policies to protect the health and safety of Americans.” 

Reichlin-Melnick said Abbott’s characterization of the COVID-19 risks associated with migrants at the border is misleading and xenophobic.

Linda Corchado, director of legal services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy, said she is not surprised by the Abbott administration’s rhetoric.

“The governor wouldn’t understand how one policy sharply pulled us apart from our neighbors and how another transformed us to human rights abusers in the name of “public health,” she said.

Cover photo: A U.S. Border Patrol agent directs migrants expelled under Title 42 into Juárez on March 24. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.