The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic raised significant political tension around immigration in the US. On the one hand, despite imposing restrictions on international travel in response to COVID-19, the US continued to issue visas for immigrant travel (albeit in smaller amounts), with 4,253,736 visas offered in fiscal year 2020 (compared with 9,204,490 in FY 2019). In contrast, in March 2020 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) implemented Sections 362 and 365 of the Public Health Service Act, encoded in Title 42 of the US Code. This authority granted Customs and Border Protection the authority to immediately expel immigrants presenting at U.S. ports of entry or apprehended near the U.S. border to neighboring countries or their country of origin.
Immigrants expelled under Title 42 are not seen by a judge to have their potential asylum claims reviewed. Unaccompanied minors were exempted from Title 42 by court order in November 2020, and family expulsions have been curtailed by Mexico’s increasing unwillingness to accept family units with young children. Despite this, between March 2020 and April 2022, 1.8 million Title 42 expulsions were carried out. The practice has persisted despite several million monthly concurrent U.S. border crossings by essential personnel; in addition, vaccinated visa-holding nonessential travelers were given permission to cross into US ports of entry in November 2021.
The Trump and Biden administrations defended this measure as a public health intervention to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in border communities, rather than an immigration enforcement action. Furthermore, after the Biden administration decided to sunset the program in May 2022, numerous state and national officials came to the program’s defense, leading to lawsuits that have delayed its termination. Meanwhile, expelled immigrants often dwell in exposed shelters in northern Mexico, where they are vulnerable to COVID-19 spread and other human rights violations and attacks, including 8,705 reported kidnappings and assaults between January 2021 and January 2022, leading many to criticize the policy.