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We still need Title 42 at our border to protect public health

The Biden administration recently announced that it will cancel Title 42 as of May 23, based on an assessment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that COVID-19 no longer poses a critical public health threat to the American public. Title 42 was invoked by the Trump administration in March 2020, allowing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to quickly return migrants apprehended after illegally crossing the southern border to Mexico, to check the spread of the virus in the United States.

When he assumed office in January 2021, President Biden began eliminating virtually every other legal and policy mechanism to remove people who enter the country illegally. Thus, Title 42 is the only functioning mechanism under which illegal border-crossers are prevented from making their way into the United States. In February, 55 percent of the 164,973 migrants encountered by CBP were barred from entry under Title 42.

Without the deterrence effect of Title 42 in place, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is bracing for an immediate surge of 1 million migrants during the first six weeks after the provision is canceled, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) has warned. In addition to the myriad other security and fiscal concerns posed by an influx of that magnitude, ending Title 42 without restoring any of the other mechanisms for removing illegal migrants could be a clear threat to public health in the United States. In other words, the Biden administration’s response to the declining hospitalization and death rates from COVID is to potentially expose the American public to new threats from the virus.

COVID may be on the wane in America — for the moment — but it is far from eradicated. Just ask the folks in Shanghai, China, a city of 28.5 million, who are under a heavy-handed lockdown that only the Chinese Communist Party could pull off. According to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, there are still millions of active COVID cases worldwide. The original strain of the virus appeared in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and by mid-January 2020, it had arrived in the United States. By March of that year, we had a full-blown health emergency on our hands.

The virus crosses not only borders, but also oceans, in the bodies of unsuspecting people who were infected — which was precisely why the U.S. invoked Title 42. While it is impossible to quantify something that did not happen, it is reasonable to assume that Title 42 played a role in bringing COVID under control here, to a point where we are now lifting many of the pandemic-related restrictions that were imposed on the American public.

With the prospect of an immediate influx of 1 million migrants — arriving in large groups and from countries where infection rates are high and vaccination rates are low — ending Title 42 without a back-up plan for controlling the southern border is an engraved invitation to a resurgence of COVID in the U.S. It will be virtually impossible to screen that many people for the virus, or other infectious diseases, before sending them on their way to communities across the country. 

The public health threat of even greater border chaos is not limited to COVID. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has declared that fentanyl-fueled opioid addiction in the United States is “a public health crisis with devastating consequences.” The CDC, on whose advice the Biden administration is basing its decision to terminate Title 42, reports that more than 100,000 Americans died of fentanyl overdoses in 2021.

Much of the fentanyl that is killing Americans is entering the United States from Mexico, brought in by criminal cartels that smuggle human beings across the border. The record levels of illegal immigration during President Biden’s first year in office were matched by record levels of fentanyl crossing the border.

Along the overwhelmed Texas border, fentanyl seizures were up by an astounding 1,066 percent in 2021, an indication that the profit-driven cartels were successfully getting many more times that amount into the country. As the numbers of migrants grow exponentially after May 23, and CBP manpower and resources are stretched even thinner, the cartels undoubtedly will exploit the situation to bring in more lethal narcotics, leading to even more deaths.

Critics of Title 42 insist that it is a public health provision, not an immigration enforcement mechanism. Agreed, and when COVID truly is eradicated and the cross-border fentanyl crisis is brought under control, we can all join in calling for its repeal. Until then, and in the absence of meaningful alternatives for controlling illegal border crossings, Title 42 is doing what it is meant to do: protecting public health.

Ira Mehlman is media director at Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which examines immigration trends and advocates for policy changes. 

Tags Biden immigration policy COVID-19 Fentanyl illegal migrants Joe Biden Title 42 US border crisis

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