Vehicles enter a checkpoint as they approach the Mexico border at the US Customs and Border Protection San Ysidro Port of Entry at the US- Mexico border on February 19, 2021, in San Diego.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Vehicles enter a checkpoint as they approach the Mexico border at the US Customs and Border Protection San Ysidro Port of Entry at the US- Mexico border on February 19, 2021, in San Diego.
CNN —  

The Biden administration faces the possibility of another immigration headache, as it weighs whether to more widely reopen US borders in the near future – just days from the current travel restrictions expiring.

An increase in migrants crossing the US-Mexico border became a political liability earlier this year, overwhelming border facilities and making headlines for poor conditions. Now White House working groups are evaluating whether to extend the 30-day restrictions on nonessential travel, which have been in place since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The latest restrictions, announced in June, will remain in effect until July 21.

The administration is expected to wind down the pandemic-era public health order allowing for the swift expulsion of migrants at the border around the end of the month in a phased approach, a source familiar with the matter told CNN, starting with migrant families. That order has been the subject of litigation. But its unwinding doesn’t guarantee that restrictions on nonessential travel will be lifted.

Complicating the effort is the range of Covid-19-related travel restrictions that have become intertwined, raising the question internally: Can one set of limits be lifted without the other, or should it be all at once?

A White House official told CNN that interagency working groups with the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada and Mexico have met several times to discuss a range of considerations that are being taken into account to safely reopen travel, including the administration’s domestic vaccination effort and the risk posed by the Delta variant.

“While these groups have met a number of times, there are further discussions to be had before we can announce any next steps on travel reopening with any country,” the official said.

The discussions also collide with political events in Haiti and Cuba that have shored up renewed concerns about the potential for increased migration from both countries. Cubans have been coming to the US-Mexico border in larger numbers. In May, Border Patrol arrested more than 2,600 Cubans. Pre-pandemic, between October and December 2019, arrests of Cubans hovered between 300 to 500, according to fiscal year 2020 data. There’s been a similar uptick in Haitians, though the Department of Homeland Security recently announced Temporary Protected Status designation for Haiti.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued a warning shot Tuesday to those considering migrating to the US. “Allow me to be clear: If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” he said, emphasizing that any migrant, “regardless of their nationality,” will not be permitted to enter the US.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has argued that Covid-19-related restrictions are intended to protect public health. That argument could be undercut with the loosening of some restrictions over others, in part resulting in tense deliberations among officials wary about opening up too soon with the threat of variants that are highly transmissible, the source said. Restrictions also remain in place for foreign nationals from certain countries.

The rise of the Delta variant in the UK is the “primary reason” the US has not eased travel restrictions there, a senior health official previously told CNN.

A Homeland Security spokesperson acknowledged to CNN “positive developments in recent weeks” but fell short of committing to when cross-border travel will fully resume. DHS is among the agencies in the White House’s expert working groups with Canada and Mexico “to identify the conditions under which restrictions may be eased safely and sustainably,” the spokesperson added.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, has flatly rejected the idea that nonessential visitors will soon be allowed to travel to Canada. “I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen for quite a while,” he said during a campaign-style stop in British Columbia last Thursday.

The Canada-US border remains closed to nonessential travel until at least July 21 and only Canadian citizens and residents are currently allowed to enter Canada by land, sea or air, unless the travelers are exempted in order to carry out essential work. The US-Mexico border also remains closed to nonessential travel until July 21. Mexico allows US travelers by air.

Thousands of people cross the US-Mexico border daily for work, school and other activities. Essential travel includes individuals traveling for medical purposes, attending school or engaged in trade, like truck drivers, among others.

The uncertainty over whether restrictions will be renewed or lifted has frustrated border communities desperate to return to normal.

“We’ve had situations where folks aren’t able to get clearance to cross on foot or by car, but they can easily go to an airport and fly,” said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, who participated in a recent call with US immigration officials and characterized it as professional. “It’s these sorts of things that aren’t consistent but add frustration.”

“Our economy will not be reopened until our border is,” Gloria added.

Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins of New York also shared frustrations over the lack of transparency on the easing of restrictions in an interview with CNN last week.

“It defies logic. It defies science. It defies fact,” said Higgins, who serves as co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus, referring to the limitations on cross-border travel and stressing the links between border communities in the US and Canada.

Internally, US Customs and Border Protection officials are bracing for the eventual lifting of border restrictions, according to two agency officials. Some are concerned about staffing and whether there are enough agents and officers to process an increased number of individuals, one of the officials said.

Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations, which is responsible for border security at US ports of entry, has pulled back officers to the ports in anticipation of restrictions being lifted, another agency official said.

The Biden administration has faced fierce criticism for relying on the public health authority Title 42, which was put in place under the Trump administration to expel migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border. Public health officials, at the time, suspected political motivations behind the decision. Since last October, Border Patrol has expelled 648,185 migrants under the authority, according to agency data.

Immigrant advocates claim the policy has put migrants in harm’s way, leaving many, including those seeking asylum, in dangerous conditions in Mexico. The policy has also been condemned by public health experts, who argue the order is “based on political, rather than public health considerations,” and by the United Nations refugee agency.

“Guaranteed access to safe territory and the prohibition of pushbacks of asylum-seekers are core precepts of the 1951 Refugee Convention and refugee law, which governments are required to uphold to protect the rights and lives of refugees,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a May statement, adding that they “have also had serious humanitarian consequences in northern Mexico.”

A group of Senate Republicans has already pounced on the anticipated loosening of the pandemic-related public health order and urged the administration to keep it in effect.

“Revoking the authority of officials to rapidly expel illegal migrants under Title 42 without a clear plan in place to handle the stress this population will place on the system and on border communities will further exacerbate the crisis at the southwestern border,” the letter, addressed to President Joe Biden, reads. Among the co-signers are Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.