Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona urged President Joe Biden against lifting a public health directive used to close the border to asylum-seekers until the administration has a plan in place to process migrants’ claims.
Their position, outlined in a Thursday evening letter, puts them at odds with their fellow Democrats, who have recently ramped up calls for the administration to rescind the border directive known as Title 42.
Implemented by the Trump administration in March 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Title 42 allows border agents to rapidly “expel” migrants who cross the border without first considering their claims for asylum and other protection.
The Biden administration has kept the policy in place; border agents have expelled migrants more than 1.7 million times since the directive was implemented, including more than a million times last year alone. The directive is next up for review on March 30.
Title 42 “should not be in effect indefinitely,” Kelly and Sinema said in their letter, noting the dangerous conditions to which the policy subjects expelled migrants. But at the same time, chaos at the border “also negatively affects migrants’ safety and could further strain an already overwhelmed health care system at the border,” they wrote.
An abrupt policy change without a comprehensive plan ready to replace it “would significantly increase the strain on DHS, border communities, and local nonprofits that are already near or at capacity,” they said.
Kelly and Sinema said they haven’t seen evidence that the Department of Homeland Security is prepared to process the high numbers of asylum claims anticipated if Title 42 is lifted at the end of the month.
They noted that the department has developed an “Irregular Mass Migration Contingency Plan” but said it “contains unanswered questions and does not seem likely to allow DHS to secure the border, protect our communities, and ensure migrants are treated fairly and humanely.”
According to the senators, the administration has also not engaged with local government and community leaders in Arizona about changes to the expulsion policy.
Earlier Thursday, more than a dozen Republican senators, led by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., raised similar concerns about DHS planning in a letter that requested information on the department’s “preparation and plans to deter and respond to the anticipated surge of illegal border crossings.”
A representative for DHS didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday, but Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas earlier this month signaled an eventual end to the policy.
“I won’t get into the operational details, but we are in fact operationalizing in preparation for different possibilities,” he said at a roundtable call with reporters.
The letter from Sinema and Kelly comes as the White House faces increased pressure from Democrats and immigrant advocates to rescind the Title 42 policy, which was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters earlier this month that he was “deeply disappointed” with its continued use by the Biden administration. He said the policy “goes against everything this country stands for.”
On Friday morning, the day after Sinema and Kelly published their letter, Reps. Ayanna S. Pressley, D-Mass., and Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, slammed the Biden administration for leaving Title 42 in place for more than two years and pushed for its end at the next review.
“President Biden inherited an asylum system that was left in tatters,” Castro said. “But it has been the choice of this administration to extend Title 42 over and over again, and it must come to an end.”
Pressley also criticized the administration for announcing expanded pathways for displaced Ukrainians to come to the U.S. while continuing to shut out asylum-seekers at the border, many of whom fled persecution in Central America and the Caribbean.
“All asylum-seekers deserve this kind of swift, compassionate response,” she said.
Caroline Simon contributed to this report.