Biden administration officials painted a scene of relative calm at the southern border since the mass expulsion policy known as Title 42 ended earlier this year, though they lamented to lawmakers they still do not have the resources necessary to carry out their duties more effectively.
The preparations the Homeland Security Department and other agencies took as the pandemic-era policy was reaching its expiration allowed various components to avoid the disruptions that many feared would occur, the officials told lawmakers on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s border panel on Wednesday. The strategies the administration has employed have paid dividends in encouraging immigrants to seek lawful pathways to enter the country, they said, though the situation has continued to build up backlogs and stretch their workforces thin.
Title 42 allowed border personnel to quickly turn away most migrants without adjudicating potential asylum claims, but the Biden administration ended its use in May. Officials initially estimated the change could at least double the number of migrant encounters per day at the southwest border, but the arrests between ports of entry instead declined. They began to rise again, however, in July.
The Biden administration sent thousands of federal personnel to the southern border to assist the more than 24,000 Customs and Border Protection agents and officers who remain in the region. Prior to the end of Title 42, administration officials similarly complained they did not have enough staff to respond to the elevated levels of migrant crossings.
Administration officials have emphasized that processing migrants under the normal immigration authorities, rather than the emergency Title 42 provisions, would lead to greater deterrence. Under those proceedings, the United States can impose a five-year ban on anyone who illegally crosses the border and can pursue criminal punishments for those who make multiple attempts.
As part of the effort to incentivize migrants to receive preclearance before crossing the border, officials said the administration would increase the number of appointments it books through the CBP One app that immigrants are now expected to use to set up asylum hearings. The administration has also allowed for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia access into the U.S. through an expansion of the temporary program known as parole. DHS has deployed officers abroad to meet potential migrants where they are and determine their eligibility for legal pathways to the U.S., including refugee resettlement, parole programs, family reunification or labor-based visas.
“As we approached the end of the Title 42 order, [Customs and Border Protection] was prepared to continue fulfilling our border security mission by deploying resources, streamlining processes, and putting measures in place to prevent disruptions to our critical border security and facilitation operations,” Matthew Davies, CBP’s executive director for admissibility and passenger programs told the senators in his prepared testimony.
Davies acknowledged the CBP One app has experienced “some shortcomings,” though CBP does not systematically track the feedback it receives from immigrants. He said, however, that the agency is rolling out “constant updates” to fix those issues.
Some lawmakers, including Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., the top Republican on the Government Operations and Border Management Subcommittee that held Wednesday’s hearing, lamented that migrants arriving legally at ports of entry or illegally between them are facing extended periods of time before their cases are resolved. In some cases in New York City, Daniel Bible, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deputy executive associate director for Enforcement and Removal Operations, said asylum cases are being scheduled out 10 years. Bible added that DHS is looking at ways to spread those cases throughout the country.
David BeMiller, Border Patrol’s chief for law enforcement operations, said in his thousands of conversations with agents the most common complaint he hears is about a lack of resources and an inability to be on the front lines. CBP now has 1,200 processing coordinators, BeMiller said, but Border Patrol agents are still being asked to conduct work outside their normal, law enforcement duties.
“We're still far from returning all of our Border Patrol agents back to the line,” BeMiller said. “We need to get them back to the line.”
Congress funded an additional 300 Border Patrol agents as part of the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending bill—marking the first such increase in more than a decade—and Biden requested an additional 350 in his fiscal 2024 budget.
Andrew Davidson, deputy director at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, noted that his agency has grown its asylum officer workforce from 283 in fiscal 2013 to 1,128 authorized positions in fiscal 2023. Still, USCIS has tapped hundreds of employees throughout the agency to work on the issue due to the rapidly growing workload it faces. He added the agency is digitizing a lot of its processes to clear up bottlenecks, which he called a “significant accomplishment.”
Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said the department can further address its shortfalls by outsourcing more processing work to non-government organizations.
“We've tried to advocate for additional funding for them from the federal government because at the end, what they're doing is playing a supportive role to your function in a much more cost effective way than if we try to do all this with federal employees from one agency or department or another,” Padilla said.
Each of the witnesses stressed that a government shutdown—which could occur Oct. 1 if Congress does not pass a funding measure before then—would exacerbate issues within their workforces, even though they would largely continue to work through any appropriations lapse.
“We would continue to come into work and secure our border at our ports of entry, but for officers especially over a long period of time not having a paycheck to go home to, is extremely demoralizing and debilitating,” Davies said.
This story was first published by Government Executive.