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Title 42 was meant to slow COVID at the border. It's being used to manage migration

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The pandemic border restrictions, known as Title 42, were under scrutiny this week. Officially, Title 42 is not an immigration policy. It is technically a public health order to - that's intended to stop the spread of COVID, not to control migration at the southern border. But you might not guess as much from listening to the debate in Washington, D.C. NPR's Joel Rose has this report.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In hearings on Capitol Hill, lawmaker after lawmaker blasted the Biden administration's plan to lift Title 42, the policy that allows immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants at the border on public health grounds without letting them ask for asylum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE CHABOT: The situation at our southern border is an unmitigated disaster, and I fear it's about to get a whole lot worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURGESS OWENS: Removing Title 42 is wrong, reckless and plain stupid.

ROSE: And it wasn't just Republicans, like Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio and Burgess Owens of Utah, but a handful of Democrats, as well, including Representative Greg Stanton of Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG STANTON: It's clear to me that the federal government is not prepared, not even close.

ROSE: For two years, the Trump and Biden administrations have insisted that Title 42 is a public health order, while critics complained that it's really a border management tool in disguise. Even supporters of Title 42 now mostly agree. The debate that's playing out in Congress and in the courts is openly about whether Title 42 is an effective way to manage migration. And that argument is far from settled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Title 42 is a policy failure, plain and simple.

ROSE: Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington and other progressive Democrats held a press conference outside the Capitol this week urging the Biden administration to follow through on its plan to end Title 42 on May 23, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ordered. Immigrant advocates say Title 42 has not deterred migrants from coming to the border. In fact, they point out it has removed any penalties for crossing more than once. Tyler Moran is a former adviser to President Biden and co-founder of a nonprofit called the Immigration Hub.

TYLER MORAN: What we've seen since Title 42 has been in place is a huge increase in the number of people who are making multiple attempts to cross the border. And the overall number of people attempting to cross the border since Trump put it in place has only increased.

ROSE: Title 42 was in place when the Border Patrol set a record for apprehensions last year as migrants flee poverty, violence and corruption across Central America and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have been expelled to Mexico, where many have been victims of kidnapping and other crimes. The Department of Homeland Security says lifting Title 42 will likely lead to another spike in border apprehensions. Republicans have seized on that prediction. Here's Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE JOHNSON: We'll be totally overwhelmed, be crushed by the sheer numbers and the weight of illegal immigration. And there will no longer be any border, any security here, any sovereignty at all. We won't have a country.

ROSE: Republicans accused Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, without evidence, of deliberately encouraging illegal immigration. This week, Mayorkas released a detailed plan to deal with an increase in migrants if Title 42 is lifted, relying on the immigration laws that were on the books before the pandemic. And Mayorkas pointed out that migrants have a right to seek asylum under U.S. immigration laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: My family are beneficiaries of those laws. We fled the communist takeover of Cuba to enjoy the freedoms and liberties and the democracy that makes this country shine. And we are intensely proud of our humanitarian relief programs.

ROSE: For now, the Biden administration is still planning to lift Title 42 in less than a month. But a federal judge in Louisiana issued a temporary restraining order this week, blocking the administration from beginning to phase out Title 42, which means it could still be in place at the border for a long time to come.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.