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The U.S. unveils plan to discourage border crossings when pandemic restrictions lift

Migrants walk into U.S. custody after crossing the border from Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, Wednesday, March 29, 2023.
Christian Chavez
Migrants walk into U.S. custody after crossing the border from Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, Wednesday, March 29, 2023.

Updated April 27, 2023 at 5:40 PM ET

The U.S. will establish new immigration processing centers in Latin America, Biden administration officials announced Thursday, as part of a broader plan to discourage migrants from making the dangerous journey to the southern border.

With pandemic border restrictions set to lift in just two weeks, the administration is rolling out a host of new measures aimed at discouraging migrants from crossing the border illegally.

Those plans include new processing centers in Guatemala and Colombia that are intended to help migrants fleeing Central and South America seek lawful pathways to the U.S. At the same time, the administration says it will apply tougher enforcement measures for those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, including more deportations.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced the new measures in a joint press conference Thursday morning in Washington, D.C.

"These centers will take a hugely important step to prevent people from making the dangerous journey to the border by providing a much safer legal option to migrate that they can pursue in and from their own countries," Blinken said.

Immigration authorities are bracing for a jump in the number of migrants attempting to seek asylum in the U.S. when the pandemic restrictions known as Title 42 end. The Title 42 restrictions, first put in place by the Trump administration in March 2020, have been used more than 2 million times to quickly expel migrants without giving them a chance to seek asylum.

The Biden administration says it expects to stop enforcing the restrictions on May 11. The White House has tried to end Title 42 before, only to be blocked in court by a coalition of mostly Republican-led states that have sought to extend the restrictions.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of migrants from across the hemisphere have left their home countries, fleeing from violence, poverty, political destabilization and climate change. Many are now waiting in towns and cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, and growing increasingly desperate for a chance to seek asylum in the U.S.

"We know smugglers will seek to take advantage of the end of Title 42, and that the first few weeks will be challenging," Mayorkas acknowledged at the press conference. "Let me be clear: Our border is not open, and it will not be open after May 11th."

Mayorkas says the administration plans to ramp up deportations under the nation's regular immigration laws, and will use the process known as expedited removal to quickly deport migrants who do not have valid asylum claims.

The Biden administration is also pushing ahead with a controversial rule that would make it more difficult for migrants to get asylum if they cross the border illegally after passing through Mexico or another country along the way.

The White House has faced constant criticism from Republicans over its handling of the border. Immigration hardliners blame the administration's policies for the record numbers of migrants arriving at the border in recent years.

Thursday's announcements did not appear to change their minds.

"What President Biden and Secretary Mayorkas are doing are doubling down on the failed policies that created this problem," said House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., during a press conference to announce the GOP's latest border security legislation.

"Every single thing Alejandro Mayorkas is doing is to speed more people into this country," said Mark Green, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "The more you incentivize people, the bigger the wave will be. And all the processing centers do is provide more incentive."

Thursday's announcement drew more mixed reaction from immigrant advocates.

"We welcome the Biden administration's commitment to expanding refugee resettlement and other regular pathways in the Americas, but remain alarmed that the administration continues to pursue policies that punish people seeking asylum," said Eleanor Acer at the nonprofit Human Rights First during a conference call with reporters.

Refugee resettlement organizations welcomed the announcement that the U.S. intends to admit more refugees from South and Central America. But they also expressed concern about the proposed restrictions on asylum.

"Resettlement should be used not to replace access to asylum, but to relieve pressure on the asylum system and — more importantly — to save lives, so that those people who can access resettlement won't take the dangerous journey to find protection," said Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, in a statement.

The Biden administration did appear to side with immigrant advocates on one key question: whether to resume holding migrant families in detention facilities.

The administration had ended the practice several months ago over concerns about the harm detention does to young children. In recent weeks, Mayorkas said the administration was considering whether to restart family detention in order to migrants from crossing the border illegally.

But when asked Thursday, Mayorkas give a different answer. "We have no plan to detain families," he said.

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.