By Ted Hesson
(Reuters) - The United States is set to lift COVID-19 restrictions on Thursday night, known as Title 42, which have been in place for three years and allow border agents to quickly expel many migrants caught crossing the border back to Mexico.
Immigration processing will revert to a pre-existing system, known as Title 8, but with new, much more stringent rules for asylum seekers attached.
WHAT IS TITLE 42?
The Title 42 COVID restrictions were first implemented under Republican then-President Donald Trump in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said at the time the order was needed to stem the spread of the coronavirus in crowded detention settings.
Title 42 allowed border agents to rapidly turn back many migrants to Mexico without a chance to ask for asylum. Some public health experts, Democrats, and advocates criticized its health justification, saying it was part of Trump's goal of curbing legal and illegal immigration.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, took office in 2021 vowing to reverse Trump's restrictive approach, but kept Title 42 in place and expanded it as his administration grappled with record migrant arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Since its inception, migrants have been expelled more than 2.7 million times under Title 42, although the total includes many repeat crossers and Mexico has generally only accepted certain nationalities. Those who are unable to be expelled to Mexico -- around 2.8 million migrants in the same period -- have been allowed into the United States under a process known as Title 8 to pursue their immigration claims in court, a process that can take months or years.
WHEN DOES TITLE 42 EXPIRE?
The Biden administration intends to lift Title 42 on Thursday at 11:59 p.m. EDT (0359 GMT Friday) when the U.S. COVID public health emergency ends. Simultaneously, a new Biden regulation finalized this week will go into effect, which could deny asylum to almost all illegal border crossers.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER TITLE 42 IS LIFTED?
After Title 42 ends, all migrants will be subject to standard immigration processing known as Title 8.
Under Title 8, migrants who express fear of returning to their home countries can request asylum but now - under the new rule - most will not qualify.
The new asylum regulation bars anyone who has passed through another country without seeking refuge there first or who has failed to access legal pathways to enter the United States.
Some migrants have scrambled to cross into the United States before the new asylum rule takes effect. Border agents apprehended more than 10,000 each day this week, surpassing a scenario outlined by a top U.S. border official last month. And border detention facilities are filling up fast.
HOW DO THE NEW MIGRATION RESTRICTIONS WORK?
U.S. authorities aim to process migrants under the new asylum rule within days of their arrival and swiftly deport them if they fail an initial asylum screening.
Nearly 500 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) personnel will temporarily be assigned to help with the interviews. At the same time, the Pentagon will send 1,500 troops to support the Border Patrol on a temporary basis.
But it is unclear if it will run smoothly, with asylum officers only recently receiving training on the new process. And the administration may also struggle to hold migrants at the border and quickly deport them without additional funds from Congress.
The rule is also expected to face legal challenges. A similar measure proposed by Trump was blocked in court.
HOW ARE U.S. CITIES RESPONDING TO THE END OF TITLE 42?
U.S. border cities are grappling with the recent spike in migrant arrivals and bracing for the possibility of even more when Title 42 ends. Migrants confused by all the changes in U.S. policy are amassing on both sides of the border.
The Texas cities of Brownsville, El Paso and Laredo have issued emergency declarations.
El Paso is opening emergency shelters in two vacant schools because existing shelters have been at capacity this week, according to local news reports.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott expanded his ongoing campaign to use National Guard troops to secure the border, announcing a new tactical force that will be "deployed to hotspots" to "intercept and repel" migrants.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat whose city has received thousands of migrants on buses from Texas, on Wednesday suspended some of New York City's rules that guarantee shelter for anyone in need of housing.
Adams issued an executive order that cited the "unprecedented humanitarian crisis" caused by arriving asylum seekers.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Rosalba O'Brien)