NEW ORLEANS (AP) – A federal judge on Wednesday ordered a two-week halt to the phasing out of pandemic-related restrictions to seek asylum – and questioned the Biden administration’s plan to completely lift those restrictions on May 23.
So far, the decision is only a temporary setback for the administration. But the judge ruled a position very sympathetic to Louisiana, Arizona and 19 other states that sued to retain the so-called Title 42 authority, which denies migrants a chance at asylum because of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“(States) have established a significant threat of immediate and irreparable harm as a result of the early implementation of Section 42, including the unpaid costs of health care, law enforcement, detention, education, and other services for migrants,” wrote U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays. in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Summerhays, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, said states were likely to succeed in their argument that the administration failed to comply with federal procedures when it announced on April 1 that it was terminating the title 42 authority.
The judge has scheduled a critical hearing on May 13 in Lafayette to hear arguments on whether to block Title 42 from ending as scheduled 10 days later.
Texas filed a similar lawsuit in a federal court in Victoria, Texas, on Friday.
The decision to end the Title 42 authority was made by the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has come under growing criticism from elected officials in Biden’s Democratic Party, who claim that the administration is unprepared for an expected increase in asylum seekers.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the order, but the administration has said it will abide by it, while claiming it will hamper preparations for section 42 ending on May 23.
About 14% of single adults from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were treated under immigration law during a seven-day period ending last Thursday. That’s an increase from just 5% in March, according to government figures.
Summerhays’ order calls for the Homeland Security Department to “return to policies and practices in place” before announcing plans to end Title 42 and to submit weekly reports showing it is acting “in good faith.”
Migrants have been deported more than 1.8 million times under the rule invoked by the Trump administration in March 2020. Migrants were stopped more than 221,000 times at the border with Mexico in March, a 22-year high that has given rise to concern about the government’s ability to handle even larger numbers when Title 42 is repealed.
Advocates for asylum seekers say the restrictions endanger people fleeing persecution and violate the rights to seek protection under U.S. law and international treaties. As the CDC acknowledged, public health justification for the order has weakened as the threat of COVID-19 has diminished.
At two often controversial hearings on Wednesday, Homeland Security Minister Alejandro Mayorkas tried to defend the administration’s handling of an increase in migrants at the southwestern border and its plans to deal with the prospect of more with the potential termination of section 42.
Mayorkas tried to push back on the Republican accusations that the Biden administration has encouraged irregular migration by allowing some people to seek asylum, and blaming economic and political unrest and violence throughout Latin America and the world.
“Some of the causes of irregular migration have only been exacerbated by years of hardship prior to this administration,” he said.
Mayorkas testified a day after Homeland Security released a plan with more details on how it was preparing for the end of the Title 42 authority.
Associated Press reporter Ben Fox in Washington contributed to this story.