Migrants queue near the border wall after crossing the Rio Bravo to turn themselves in to US Border Patrol agents to request asylum in El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on December 12.
CNN  — 

A pointless argument battered Washington for much of this year over whether the southern US border is in crisis. But no one is now doubting the chaos and potential migrant surge that could be triggered by an imminent policy shift next week.

The expiry on Wednesday of a Trump-era order that exploited public health justifications during the pandemic to turn away thousands of migrants is expected to severely strain an already stretched border, immigration and asylum system.

The Department of Homeland Security unveiled Thursday an emergency six-point plan to tackle the crisis as Republicans preparing to take over the House brandished the potential chaos as proof of their claims of gross White House negligence over the border.

Even some Democrats are warning that an huge influx of immigrants next week could cause multiple adverse consequences. Critics say the administration took too long to engage on the issue and hasn’t done enough, though they also fault Congress for failing for decades to reform the immigration system and border enforcement – a goal that polls repeatedly show the public supports.

“We have a leak,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said on “CNN This Morning” Thursday. “We need a plumber to come and stop the leak. And instead, what we’re doing is we’re sending us more buckets to hold the water.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom meanwhile told ABC News this week that the expiry of the policy known as Title 42 could overburden his state’s capacity to cope. “The fact is, what we’ve got right now is not working, and it’s about to break in a post-(Title) 42 world unless we take some responsibility and ownership,” he said.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco told CBS News she was worried about an increase in “illegal migration” and drug smuggling. Some Democratic jurisdictions, like New York City for instance are already struggling to cope with immigrants who have already arrived as they brace for more.

A pandemic-era band aid on a broader problem

Title 42 was introduced early in the Covid-19 emergency and allowed officials to turn away certain categories of migrants. But critics say it not only abused the principles of public health, especially by being in force so long, but that it was a cruel and unfair infringement of the human right to make an asylum claim. A federal judge in Louisiana blocked a previous bid by the Biden administration to cancel the order, but a federal judge in Washington struck it down in November, declaring it “arbitrary and capricious.”

Amid growing concerns that large groups of migrants waiting in Mexico could cross over the border next week, Biden’s team said Thursday it was surging resources to the area, improving processing efficiency for immigration claims, imposing consequences for unlawful entry, bolstering nonprofit capacity, targeting smugglers and working with international partners.

But it has often seemed like the White House wanted to talk about anything but the border to avoid political blowback and that the administration lacked urgency in tackling immigration as a whole – one of the most nettlesome issues for this president and his predecessors. Republicans have demanded Biden visit the border, though the political theatrics surrounding such a trip might now cloud any attempt by the president to offer clarity on a deeply complicated problem. Still, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas said on CNN “This Morning” Wednesday that the president should go anyway.

“I don’t know why they keep avoiding the border and saying there’s other things more important than visiting the border,” he said. “If there’s a crisis, show up. Just show up,” Cuellar said.

And in another setback to Biden’s efforts to end some of Trump’s controversial immigration policies, a federal judge in Texas has paused the administration’s most recent attempt to end the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program, which sends certain non-Mexican citizens who entered the US back to Mexico – instead of detaining them or releasing them into the United States – while their immigration proceedings played out.

GOP prepares relentless scrutiny on border

It is well within the new GOP majority’s right to investigate the administration’s failure to stem a rise in encounters with border crossers in Biden’s term and the intensity of its immigration policy as a whole. US border authorities encountered more than two million migrants in fiscal 2022, according to US Customs and Border Protection figures released in October – up from 1.7 million in 2021. Conservatives say this is proof of an “open border” that means many more migrants get through in a scenario that endangers national security. Many Democrats argue that large numbers of migrants encounter border agents in multiple attempts to cross into the US after they are repeatedly sent back.

But more broadly, the expiry of Title 42 is also a microcosm of a toxic debate over immigration, demagogued by conservative media and distorted by some Republicans for a political jolt that has made a multi-layered international and domestic issue impossible to solve for decades. Former President Donald Trump’s extreme rhetoric and chaotic hardline approach further poisoned the well over this issue and left the immigration system in chaos.

Some members in the new GOP House majority that will take over next month seem more determined to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for a so-far unspecified high crime and misdemeanor, in revenge for Trump’s double impeachment, than in working to find a comprehensive solution to one of the nation’s worst problems.

And by shipping migrants to places like Manhattan, Washington and Martha’s Vineyard, Republican governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott of Texas meanwhile seem keener to score points with potential Republican presidential primary voters by using migrants as political pawns than to draw attention to the burden borne by states in this crisis.

Republicans are right to highlight the epidemic of deaths from fentanyl in the United States that is coming across the border from Mexico often using precursor chemicals from China. But they also spent four years indulging Trump’s obsession with a border wall that does little to stem the influx of the narcotics that mostly comes through border checkpoints, concealed in vehicles by drugs cartels.

Another tragedy highlighted over Title 42’s expiration is rooted in the plight of migrants fleeing crime, persecution, economic and social repression in central and South America who make a perilous journey to the United States, often at the mercy of ruthless human traffickers and with no certain outcome.

Biden assigned Vice President Kamala Harris to address the root causes of immigration from nations in the Western Hemisphere. Her task is a fraught one, considering the corruption, unstable states and tensions between nations like Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela and El Salvador and the United States – not to mention troubled relations in recent years between Mexico and Washington.

She argued at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June that no migrant wanted to leave home but that many were forced out by dire conditions. Harris has also sought to drum up private investment to mitigate the poverty that forces people to flee. But at the same time, there hasn’t been much public evidence recently that her efforts are bearing fruit or a sense that an issue that brings substantial political peril is her overwhelming priority.

Any permanent solution to border issues would involve a massive investment to secure the frontier, with barriers where it makes sense but also with new tracking technology and manpower where walls don’t help. It would address the plight of undocumented migrants brought to the US as children who are known as Dreamers. It would also provide a long-term path to legal status for millions more undocumented migrants, expand asylum courts to expedite claims and reform the system of legal immigration and visas for migrant workers needed to address economically damaging labor shortages in agriculture and catering industries, for instance.

But the political tradeoffs and goodwill required for such a reform defied Congress during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. A last-ditch effort by Republican North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and newly independent Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema that would have led to the protections of Dreamers and new measures to halt border crossings in this Congress just fizzled.

It was the latest sign that a broken Washington can’t fix one of America’s most intractable problems – a failure that repeatedly leads to situations like the one that will unfold at the border next week.