WASHINGTON — The imminent overnight end of the COVID-19 public health emergency felt more like a crisis than cause for celebration Thursday as Homeland Security agents and officials braced for an onslaught of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.
More than three years after the arrival of the virus on North American soil, pandemic-era border regulations were to be lifted at midnight Thursday night, ending a tragic and ugly chapter of history while marking the start of an uncertain new era.
Even President Joe Biden had to admit things at the southern border would be "chaotic for a while" as the public health measure known as Title 42 gives way to a rigid new regime aimed at blunting a tidal wave of human migration.
"We are a nation of immigrants, and we are a nation of laws," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Thursday.
"Those laws provide that if one qualifies for humanitarian relief, then one has established a basis to remain in the United States. If one has not, then one is to be removed — and that is exactly what is going to happen."
Prior to Title 42, imposed in March 2020 by the Trump administration, migrants who were detained in the U.S. without legal status to be in the country could apply for asylum, and were often allowed to stay to await the outcome of an immigration hearing.
Since then, however, migrants were turned away without the chance to make an asylum claim on the grounds that allowing them to remain could foster the spread of the virus.
With Title 42's expiration, the Biden administration is imposing tough new rules that they say provide a deterrent for those seeking to enter the country illegally while creating new "legal pathways" for those with legitimate grounds for asylum.
All along the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, tens of thousands of would-be asylum seekers have been massing for weeks in places like Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Reynosa, some after taking matters into their own hands by slipping into the U.S. illegally.
"People who cross our border unlawfully and without a legal basis to remain will be promptly processed and removed," Mayorkas said.
They will also be presumed ineligible for asylum, face a ban on re-entry of at least five years and ultimately criminal prosecution if they are caught a second time, he added.
"Smugglers have long been hard at work, spreading false information that the border will be open" after Title 42, Mayorkas said.
"Know this: smugglers care only about profits, not people. Do not risk your life and your life savings, only to be removed from the United States if and when you arrive here."
Homeland Security, the Pentagon and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been "surging personnel" to the southern border to deal with the influx, he added, including more than 24,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents and officers, as well as thousands of soldiers, contractors, asylum officers and immigration judges.
The surge also includes some 1,400 Homeland Security personnel, 1,000 processing co-ordinators and 1,500 additional Department of Defense officials. "We are clear-eyed about the challenges we are likely to face in the days and weeks ahead," he said, "and we are ready to meet them."
It's a far cry from the scene at the Canada-U.S. border, where the end of the public health emergency means border agents will no longer be asking travellers to show proof of their COVID-19 vaccination status.
But there, too, there's more apprehension than elation.
Those southbound Border Patrol officers and customs agents had to come from somewhere, said New York Rep. Brian Higgins, the Democratic congressman whose efforts to combat pandemic-era travel restrictions has become a personal crusade.
Whenever the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border demands it, "there's a compulsory movement of Customs and Border Protection agents from the northern border to the southern border," Higgins said.
"That's been a problem, not only because it takes resources from the northern border, but a lot of those people end up saying, 'Screw it, I can't move my family down to the southern border.'"
Higgins said he worries that if the pattern continues, chronic understaffing at land border crossings could lead to longer delays and apathy on the part of travellers who decide it's not worth the hassle, or who opt to fly instead of drive.
"The reports I get are that inspection booths are not being manned," he said.
"When that is the case, you have backups, and when you have backups, people shy away from the border. We hope that doesn't result in a permanent change in economic behaviour, but oftentimes it does."
Customs and Border Protection would not say Thursday how many of its agents had been diverted from northern sectors, but said it does not anticipate any impact on operations at the Canadian border.
In a statement, it said CBP "will continue to carry out its primary responsibilities to protect the American people, safeguard our borders, and enhance the nation's economic prosperity" through trade and travel.
The Canada Border Services Agency would not comment on Title 42 except to say the two countries are "working together to respond to the shared challenge of irregular migration, the exploitation of migrants and forced displacement in the Americas."
Mayorkas acknowledged that his department needs more resources and a more functional immigration system, laying the blame for both squarely at the feet of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
"We are working within the constraints of a fundamentally broken immigration system, and we also are operating on resources that are far less than those that we need, and that we've requested."
The Frontier Duty Free Association, which represents the 32 duty-free retailers that operate on the Canadian side of the land border, warned Thursday that sales are still about 42 per cent lower on average than they were before the pandemic.
"We did our part to keep Canadians and Americans safe at the land border," said association president Tania Lee.
"Now, we need action to ensure our businesses can thrive again and assurance that we will never endure such a border closure and restrictions again."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2023.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press