The frenzy set off over the end of Title 42 has so far been a misfire as the policy’s end precipitated a pause — not a rush — in migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the week preceding the end of the pandemic-inspired policy, the media ran countdowns and surged coverage at the border, politicians on both sides of the aisle called for extensions – with Republicans largely predicting a doomsday scenario – and administration officials warned of worsening conditions ahead.
But Title 42 went away with a whimper.
“Over the last three days, we have seen approximately a 50 percent decrease in encounters compared to the days leading up to the end of Title 42. It is still early though, and we are mindful that smugglers will continue to look for ways to take advantage of the change in border policies,” said Blas Nuñez-Neto, the assistant secretary for border and immigration policy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Officials and advocates are wary that border encounters could still rise aggressively because tens of thousands of migrants remain bottlenecked at the border in large part due to U.S. policies, including Title 42.
The pandemic-era policy allowed border officials to quickly expel migrants they encountered, blocking them from seeking asylum, while that failure to log crossings led to a boom in recidivism.
With a return to normal operating procedure, people who are caught crossing the border on multiple occasions without prior authorization could face criminal charges and severe immigration consequences, such as a five-year bar on reentry to the United States.
The Biden administration also surged law enforcement and military resources to the border in anticipation of a significant rise in migrant apprehensions.
Those moves earned the administration scorn from the left, with some advocates and Democrats warning that enforcement-heavy and militarized actions reinforced the rhetoric coming from the right that fed Title 42 mania.
“What the administration has been doing is sort of playing on the field that the anti-immigrant politicians have set, they’re working within that frame. They’re working within a framework that looks at immigration as an inherently bad thing, and that dehumanizes immigrants individually, and so with no counter messaging, everything shifts to the right,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Jennifer Quigley, senior director at government affairs for Human Rights First, said using such language portrays the border as a problem that needs to be “managed” rather than the result of a humanitarian crisis.
“It’s a complete dehumanization of the most vulnerable people for scoring political points and viewing the border as something that has to be managed as opposed to [the fact that] people are going to come,” she said.
“The world has seen the largest displacement crisis in recorded history. I don’t care how horrible you make this process for them. They’re going to come as long as what is here is not as horrible as what they left.”
Many advocates say the focus on enforcement and the use of terms such as “flood,” “wave,” or “surge” to describe migrants’ behaviors furthers dehumanization.
Administration officials have aggressively pushed back against any suggestion that their actions or words could feed anti-immigrant sentiment, even inadvertently.
“I would have to disagree that DHS plays any role in promoting anti-immigrant sentiments or language, but I will say that, whenever there’s a change in policy at the border, we have seen smuggling networks weaponize those changes to spread disinformation and drive migration throughout the hemisphere. And, you know, we did see, in point of fact, a significant surge in migration in the days leading up to the lifting of Title 42,” Nuñez-Neto told reporters.
Some pro-immigration advocates pushed back on the idea that dehumanizing language affects public sentiment, arguing that it likely reflects the user’s preexisting sentiments.
“The effect of dehumanizing language on opinions is vastly exaggerated. The causality likely runs in the other direction – people see a sudden increase in something that they don’t like, such as border crossings, and then use dehumanizing language to describe it,” said Alex Nowrasteh, vice president for economic and social policy studies at the Cato Institute.
“Dehumanizing language doesn’t much impact opinions of immigration, dehumanizing language is a consequence of opinions that people already hold.”
Still, the rhetorical tone hit a drastic crescendo ahead of the end of Title 42.
Across social media, many warned there would be a rise in migration following the policy’s lifting, including numerous GOP lawmakers anticipating an “invasion” at the border.
“The Biden admin knew this was coming and did nothing. They are willfully allowing an invasion of the American homeland, compromising the security of the people they’re charged to protect,” Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) wrote on Twitter on Saturday, sharing a video of migrants rushing across a bridge toward a border crossing in El Paso, Texas.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) retweeted it, likewise calling it “an outright invasion.”
The video, however, predates the end of Title 42 by two months, with the episode on the bridge following misinformation about a supposed “day of the migrant celebration.” The woman recording the video says in Spanish that the migrants would be entering “in a legal manner” and that border agents would be waiting for them upon arrival.
Crane later clarified the timing of the video, writing that the episode shows the risk of lifting the policy.
“This specific surge was filmed before the end of Title 42, but if it was this bad prior to expiration, the chaos will only get worse,” he wrote Monday morning.
But migrant crossings dropped suddenly with the policy’s sunset.
“The end of Title 42 has yet to bring a surge of migrants that was widely predicted. This should serve as a reminder that many are eager to frame migrants as a threat to justify cruel policies,” said Rep. Jesús Garcia (D-Ill.).
“We must always center humanity and compassion as we discuss a path forward on immigration.”
Neither advocates nor immigration officials believe that lull in activity is likely to hold for long.
Among other issues, Title 42 played a part in creating a bottleneck of migrants with asylum claims who were unable to exercise those claims due to the policy.
While fears of disinformation about an “open border” after Title 42 turned out to be false, any border management processes rolled out by the Biden administration will be tested by the tens of thousands of people stuck in that bottleneck.
Administration officials say the new, stricter asylum regulations will help clear processing resources for asylum seekers with strong claims for protection.
Advocates say the asylum process has been covered in red tape and has become even more confusing for migrants who want to stake their claim legally.
“And that’s chaotic, and that’s just going to make things worse, especially when people in these camps are trying so very hard to understand how they quote unquote, ‘do the right thing,'” said Altman.
—Updated at 5:17 p.m.