Discover more from Letters from an American
May 11, 2023
At 11:59 p.m. tonight, the COVID-19 public health emergency ends by order of the Department of Health and Human Services. Today, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted that more than 270 million Americans have received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine and the U.S. has been the largest single donor of vaccines to the global community, sharing nearly 700 million doses with 117 countries.
The end of the declared pandemic shifts dealing with COVID away from an emergency status but it does not mean the end of public health concerns about the illness. Vaccines and treatments will still be widely available and, at least in the short term, at little to no cost, while the administration will continue to research long COVID and to help those experiencing it. What will change immediately is the emergency waivers that expanded Medicaid and Medicare telehealth coverage during the worst of the crisis, as well as certain reporting requirements.
The other thing that will change is that the emergency health authority the Trump administration put in place in March 2020 to turn migrants back at the border will end. That authority is known as Title 42, and it can be invoked to keep out illness. Title 42 will end along with the public health emergency, and the normal, congressionally passed, system of immigration laws will once again be the law of the land. Those laws are known as Title 8.
Republicans have demanded the continuation of Title 42 as a general immigration measure to keep out migrants, since it overrides the law that individuals are allowed to request asylum in the U.S. Although immigration has been central to the U.S. since the beginning, far-right Republicans now adhere to what is known as the “great replacement theory,” the idea that immigration will destroy a nation’s culture and identity (a theory Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán used with great success to cement his power). But Title 42 is an emergency public health authority, and if the emergency is over, the rule doesn’t apply.
President Biden sent an immigration bill to Congress on his first day in office to modernize and fund immigration processes during a time of unprecedented global migration, and the Biden administration has continued to beg Congress to pass new legislation that will adequately fund border enforcement and immigration courts—which currently have backlogs of more than 1.6 million people whose cases take an average of five years to get decided—and provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants including the “Dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. as children and have known no other home.
No such measure has passed, as Republicans refuse to accept any bill that allows for a path to citizenship, even for the Dreamers, and Democrats, who would like to expand immigration, refuse at the very least to agree to any bill without that provision in it. Today the House Republicans passed a bill that would fund the border wall that Trump demanded (and last night claimed to have finished) and significantly harden the border with new agents and more restrictive policies. Two Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the measure. Biden said he would veto the bill if it came to him because it “does very little to actually increase border security while doing a great deal to trample on the Nation’s core values and international obligations.”
On February 2, 2021, less than two weeks into his term, Biden signed Executive Order 14010 to create a regional framework to address migration by addressing its root causes. The Biden administration says its “approach to border management is grounded in this strategy—expanding legal pathways while increasing consequences for illegal pathways, which helps maintain safe, orderly, and humane border processing.”
Vice President Kamala Harris took the lead in the “diplomatic efforts to address root causes of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras,” and in July 2021 she released a report on strategies to slow migration from the region. In June 2022, at the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, the administration helped to bring to reality a long-standing realization among many countries that migration must be addressed on a regional level rather than with patchwork attempts by individual nations. The U.S. worked to get 21 governments to sign on to “a comprehensive response to irregular migration and forced displacement in the Western Hemisphere,” known as the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection.
In an interview today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the regional scope of immigration measures, noting Mexico’s commitment to take 1,000 people a day from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Cuba, as well as new rules that migrants cannot apply for asylum in the U.S. if they have not applied for it in other countries they have traveled through, with the hope of building a “shared sense of responsibility…across the hemisphere.” The administration is also backing 100 brick-and-mortar regional processing centers to enable migrants to determine if they are eligible for admission to the U.S. before they leave their home countries.
It is not entirely clear what the long-term effects of the return to normal immigration law will be. In the short term, it is likely that there will be a surge as human smugglers tell hopeful migrants that the border is now open. At a press conference today, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas tried to undercut them: “I want to be very clear,” he said. “Our borders are not open. People who cross our border unlawfully and without a legal basis to remain will be promptly processed and removed.”
Still, expecting a surge, the administration has moved personnel to the border, including more than 1,400 Department of Homeland Security staff, 1,000 processing coordinators, and an additional 1,500 troops. They have moved $332 million to communities near the border to help them handle an influx of migrants.
The return to enforcement of Title 8 will likely not, itself, be a big shock to the system. Between October 2022 and March 2023, only about 40% of migrants were processed under Title 42, and that number has continued to drop. Most were already being processed under Title 8.
Having more effect was the implementation of a new application system for migrants from Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua in January, directing them to apply for an admission interview on their phones and permitting 30,000 a month to enter the U.S. for two years if they pass a background check and have an eligible sponsor. A similar system had been in place for migrants from Venezuela since October.
An attempt to cross into the U.S. illegally would shut off that option, though, and in the weeks after the policy went into effect, migration from those regions dropped by more than 90%. Those trying to use the app say it is broken and hard to use; the administration counters by saying officers need more resources to handle the volume of calls.
Yesterday, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who chartered a plane to fly unsuspecting migrants who were legally in the U.S. to Martha’s Vineyard last fall, signed a measure to rid the state of undocumented immigrants entirely. “This is something that is the responsibility of Joe Biden,” he said. “This is a responsibility that he has defaulted on really from day one of his presidency. Obviously if we had a different administration it would be a lot easier to actually deal with the problem at its source.”
“We are…a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws,” Mayorkas said today. “We are doing everything possible to enforce those laws in a safe, orderly, and humane way. We are working with countries throughout the region, addressing a regional challenge with regional solutions. We again, yet again, call on Congress to pass desperately needed immigration reform and deliver the resources, clear authorities, and [modernized] processes that we need.”