Title 42 of the United States Code is an expansive compilation of federal statutes dedicated to public health, welfare, and related social programs, often referred to as the “Public Health and Welfare Code.” At its core, Title 42 includes significant components such as the Social Security Act, which provides the framework for the nation's social insurance programs, offering retirement, disability, and survivors’ benefits. Medicare and Medicaid, pivotal health coverage programs for the elderly and the economically challenged, respectively, also fall under this title, as well as the Public Health Service Act which outlines the foundation of the nation's public health policy, addressing disease control, research, and support.
A notable point of intersection between Title 42 and U.S.-Mexico relations arose during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, the U.S. invoked Section 265 of Title 42 to expedite the expulsion of migrants at its borders, sidestepping standard immigration proceedings in the name of public health. This policy empowered U.S. Customs and Border Protection to promptly remove individuals, including asylum seekers, over concerns about the spread of coronavirus. This application of Title 42 stirred contention in U.S.-Mexico relations. While the U.S. defended the policy as a public health necessity, critics, including some sectors in Mexico, argued it “skirted” international asylum laws. The ensuing dialogue touched on human rights, international asylum obligations, and striking a balance between safeguarding public health and upholding the rights of individuals. The dynamic nature of the pandemic meant that the use and interpretation of Title 42 was continuously evolving, mirroring both the health crisis's progression and the ever-shifting U.S.-Mexico political landscape. In essence, Title 42, while it is predominantly focused on domestic health and welfare, also has implications that stretch beyond U.S. borders, influencing relations with neighboring countries. This created a system where migration to the U.S. was limited and trammeled.
On May 11, 2023, following the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the U.S. saw the termination of restrictions under Title 42. These measures allowed authorities to deport migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border to curb the spread of the virus. Historically, migrants had the right to request asylum upon reaching the United States and could stay while awaiting the outcome of their immigration proceedings. But under Title 42, this right was denied, and migrants were promptly sent back to their home countries, except for families or unaccompanied children. Migrants could now have more opportunities to remain within the U.S. and plead their case for asylum under no threat of deportation.
The majority of migrants to the U.S. hail from countries in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, predominantly Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Haiti. The underlying causes for this migration often include violence, poverty, government oppression, and limited economic opportunities. The desire for opportunity is ever-growing with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency recording a high of over 2 million migrant apprehensions in 2022. Despite anticipations of a surge post Title 42, there has been a notable decline in illegal border crossings in the immediate short term. Subsequent to Title 42's end, daily unauthorized entries dropped drastically from 10,000 to an average of 4,400 as apprehensions dipped by 70 percent in the aftermath.
This immediate decrease can be attributed to a multitude of factors. Shelter operators in Tijuana, Mexico have observed a growing trend among migrants in their shelters who are utilizing the CBP One App, a mobile application that allows them to schedule asylum appointments at U.S. ports of entry. Despite the app's previous technical glitches and user challenges, recent updates have enabled over 1,000 migrants to successfully access it daily, marking a significant improvement in the software. Previously, migrants were quickly blocked from the system once it reached its daily capacity. This limitation caused frustration and, in one incident, resulted in a rush at the El Paso, Texas port of entry. With more migrants now able to pursue asylum legally through this avenue, there has been a decrease in the number of attempts to cross the border unlawfully.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials also attribute the decline in illegal border crossings to the introduction of more severe deterrents and consequences for unlawful migration. Previously, under Title 42, migrants could make repeated attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border without facing any repercussions if they were turned back. However, since the expiration of Title 42, migrants who are caught entering the U.S. illegally now face felony charges if they are deported and are subsequently caught attempting to re-enter within five years. This change reflects the reintroduction of an earlier regulation known as Title 8, relating to “Aliens and Nationality”.
The decline is also credited to the adoption of the asylum ineligibility policy that was put into effect following the end of Title 42. This policy states that migrants who do not attempt to seek asylum in the countries they pass through on their way to the U.S. are deemed ineligible to apply for asylum at the U.S. border. However, there are certain exceptions to this policy. Migrants can still be eligible for asylum if they were previously denied asylum in a country they passed through or if they can provide evidence that they meet specific criteria, such as being in danger of experiencing torture if they are deported.
A Different Picture
While the immediate effects of the end of Title 42 indicated a decline in the migrant flow from the southern border, recent incidents have signaled another shift in the situation. In recent weeks, southern regions of the U.S., particularly southern Arizona and Texas, have witnessed a surge in migrants entering the region. As of August 2023, apprehensions at the southern border rose to 181,059, a sharp increase from 132,648 in July. Overall, migrant detentions throughout the Southwest U.S. have exceeded 232,000, a number not seen since the previous December. This escalation was anticipated in the long term as the rapid-border removal measures under U.S. Code Title 42 were dissolved. However, the real-time consequences have been challenging. For instance, at Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents processed around 2,500 migrants in just one day, causing disruptions in rail and vehicle movements across various checkpoints.
Recent incidents also include the temporary termination of cargo operations at the Bridge of the Americas (BOTA) entry point by CBP’s El Paso Office of Field Operations. The halt was initiated to enable the CBP Field Operations to assist the U.S. Border Patrol in managing incoming noncitizens, particularly vulnerable groups. Furthermore, a recent bottleneck at the Cordova-Americas International Bridge saw 4,000 trucks waiting for inspection, bringing commerce to a near standstill in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The amplification of border control measures has unintentionally hampered U.S.-Mexico trade. Since September 26, 2023, nearly 8,000 trailers, holding goods valued around $1 billion, have been stuck on the Mexican side of the Texas-Mexico border. These logistical delays have resulted in cargo vehicles waiting up to a week to enter the U.S. Such challenges have forced companies to reroute their cargo through New Mexico or Arizona to avoid the prolonged waits in Texas. Mexican industry magnates are advocating for an end to truck examinations at the Texas border. They argue that these checks obstruct the seamless movement of goods from Juarez to U.S. distribution hubs. Additional concerns arise from reduced operational hours at entry sites beyond the El Paso-Juarez area, jeopardizing both truckers and their vehicles. As vehicles are forced to overnight in checkpoints they are also increasingly experiencing tire damage, putting drivers at risk. Moreover, a distressing situation unfolded when Mexico's leading railway operator, Ferromex, halted the operation of 60 vehicles after 4,000 migrants clambered onto the rails aiming to reach the U.S. The perilous journey saw unfortunate fatalities among migrants, predominantly in regions like Coahuila, Aguascalientes, Chihuahua, and Guanajuato.
Implication of Migrant Flows
The dynamics of the border that connects the United States and Mexico have largely influenced their relationship, and have shaped the socio-economic and political landscapes of both nations. When there are significant migrant flows, it's not just the economic implications that come to the forefront; the humanitarian aspects are equally, if not more, pressing. Large-scale migration stems from a myriad of reasons, including socio-political unrest, economic hardships, or the pursuit of better opportunities. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, one of the main economic factors that has contributed to increased migration from Mexico to the United States is the relatively lower wages and higher levels of poverty in Mexico compared to the United States. Mexico has a high level of income inequality, with a significant portion of the population living in poverty. Approximately 45 percent of the Mexican population lived in poverty in 2018. In comparison, the poverty rate in the United States was just over 10 percent in the same year.
Another driving factor in the influx of migrants from Latin America choosing to flee their nation for a chance at a new life in a new country is the increase in crime. Homicide rates in what is known as the Northern Triangle of Latin America - El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras - have pushed a new wave of migrants to the United States border. Honduras had the highest rate of homicides globally, reaching a peak of more than 91 homicides per 100,000 in 2011. The rate has decreased since then, but it is still relatively high; in the previous year, the rate was 42.8 homicides per 100,000.
Despite the high levels of violence, residents of the Northern Triangle have continued to travel north to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they face uncertain reception. In 2015 there were approximately 3.4 million people from these countries living in the United States. The rise in crime and violence in Mexico has had a significant impact on migration patterns, with many people fleeing to border crossings in search of safety and security. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, Mexico’s murder rate reached a record high in 2020, with over 35,000 homicides reported.
While these migrations can bolster the workforce and contribute to the economy, they also bring forth challenges of integration, resource allocation, and social cohesion. This is highlighted in New York City as the state is attempting to adapt to a wave of migrants seeking refuge. The recent influx of migrants seeking refuge has posed unique challenges for the city. With its already dense population, NYC has to grapple with providing adequate housing, education, and healthcare services to the newcomers. Since spring 2022, NYC has experienced a rapid increase in arrivals, with over 118,000 migrants, primarily from Latin America and the Caribbean. The recent surge has put a significant strain on city services. By September 2023, about 60,000 of these migrants were relying on the city's shelter system, costing the city over $1 billion since the beginning of the surge. To address the crisis, New York has taken measures like limiting housing costs for migrants and evicting single adults from shelters after sixty days.
U.S. political divisions further complicate the situation. Solutions to the immigration crisis lie within the U.S. Congress, which has the power to amend migration laws to ease the process for asylum seekers. As the 2024 elections approach, the border crisis is being used as a political tool rather than being addressed constructively. Comprehensive immigration reform and foreign policy adjustments are essential for a sustainable solution. The current migration wave underscores the need for comprehensive policies that address both the economic and humanitarian aspects of migration.