Biden Hollows Out Trump-Era COVID Protections at the Border

Memo: Biden admin plans to team with migrant advocates to 'streamline' border admission

President Biden delivers speech on Afghanistan on Apr. 14 / Getty Images
May 20, 2021

The Biden administration is preparing to gut COVID-19 safety restrictions on illegal immigrants and asylum seekers and essentially reverse the Trump administration’s pandemic health protections without public notice, according to documents circulating within U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

While the Trump administration took a hardline approach to turning away immigrants to avoid "a serious danger of introduction of [a communicable] disease," at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Customs and Border Protection is now quietly walking much of that guidance back. A May memo, reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon, highlighted a potential work-around of the safety measures. The memo, authored by senior staff at CBP, emphasizes the ability of "customs officers [to] determine [who] should be allowed into the United States."

Customs and Border Protection officials say the Biden administration is looking to liberally interpret that provision, which was initially meant for migrants with extenuating circumstances related to humanitarian concerns or political repression. Broadening the humanitarian exemption would constitute a de facto reversal of the Trump administration’s guidance on limiting migration into the country. The shift in policy would come as border patrol agents encountered 178,622 migrants in April, among the highest-trafficked months on record.

"They’re keeping in place Trump’s order while broadening it enough to please left-wing activists," a senior Customs and Border Protection official told the Free Beacon. "If they rescind Title 42, they can’t deport single men."

The memo says the federal officials "will be relying" on immigrant-related, nongovernmental organizations "to identify undocumented individuals potentially amenable to be exempted on humanitarian grounds." Customs and Border Protection officials say essentially outsourcing immigration processing to NGOs could flood the country with migrants, many of whom never attend their immigration court hearings. Critics say activists from border organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society coach migrants on how to gain asylum status, rather than seek out the most vulnerable.

Trump invoked Title 42, a little known provision that enables the executive branch to curtail border crossings during a public health crisis, in a March 2020 executive order. Left-wing advocacy groups call Title 42 a violation of international human rights treaties and have demanded the Biden administration reverse his predecessor’s invocation of it. The Biden administration claims the "streamlined" process of admitting immigrants will combat COVID-19 by reducing "the amount of time undocumented individuals spend in congregate settings, thereby reducing the risk of COVID-19."

Using an expansive view of the pandemic exemptions and partnering with NGOs will ensure that more illegal immigrants and asylum seekers will enter the country, according to the senior CBP official.

"What the Biden administration is doing is giving them the ability to play both sides," the official said.

President Biden fulfilled a campaign promise by publicly instituting Title 42 exemptions for all migrant children, a decision many have blamed for the surge of unaccompanied minors at the southern border. Border agents could soon face a secondary surge—broad humanitarian exemptions would allow most families and children to claim asylum, regardless of whether they test positive for COVID-19 or other diseases. Single men, Customs and Border Protection officials say, would likely still face deportation unless they say they fear for their safety in their home country.

The release of the memo comes as border patrol agents increasingly see what the New York Times dubbed "pandemic refugees" from countries as far away as India on the southern border. April numbers released by the government showed 30 percent of families found on the border came from countries other than Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—a 22.5 percent increase from April 2019.