Government officials are preparing for the largest surge of migrant traffic in decades at the United States' southern border if Title 42 restrictions set in place almost two years ago over the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted Tuesday, according to sources inside the Department of Human Services.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas this week, while speaking with department officials, asked if the division is prepared to face a scenario that could result in 350,000 to 400,000 migrants crossing the border in October, two DHS officials familiar with the call told NBC News.
If that happens, it will be double the 21-year record broken in July when 210,000 migrants crossed the border and entered the United States.
Mayorkas' estimate wasn't based on internal intelligence, the DHS officials stressed, but was instead a warning made to prepare the agency for what could happen if a September court order to lift the Title 42 restriction takes effect this week.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled on Sept. 16 that the use of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authority restriction, initially set in place by the Trump administration in March 2020 as the pandemic widened, didn't give the Biden administration authority to block migrants from coming across the border.
Sullivan's order was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by advocacy groups, and the judge said it would be effective in 14 days, which runs out on Thursday. It stops the Biden administration from expelling families under the Title 42 restrictions, but instead allows them to remain in the United States until their asylum cases come to court. Single adults were not part of the lawsuit and remain subject to the restrictions.
The ruling has been appealed, and the administration may take the matter to the Supreme Court if the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., doesn't stop it from taking effect, reports NBC News.
The Trump administration used Title 42 to block most asylum seekers, regardless of nationalities, but the Biden administration lifted the policy for children arriving unaccompanied but kept it for single adults and families.
"Given that the administration was already this summer allowing most families to seek asylum and has now been in power for eight months, there's no reason why there needs to be any further delay ending Title 42," Lee Gelernt, lead counsel in the litigation for the American Civil Liberties Union, said.
The DHS didn't return a request for comments.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration had planned to lift the restrictions at the end of July but kept them in place after officials feared a "catastrophic" surge at the border.
The DHS officials speaking to NBC News said the agency is concerned that migrants will believe the change in policy is a signal that the border is open and that they'll be allowed to remain in the United States, no matter how their asylum cases are determined.
Oxfam, another of the advocacy groups in the lawsuit, said most migrant families don't decide to come to the United States because of changes in policy, but instead because of conditions in their home countries.
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