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Immigrant advocacy groups pull out of US effort on border amid standstill over restrictions

By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN

Immigrant advocacy organizations that quietly agreed to work with the Biden administration to identify vulnerable migrants in Mexico amid border restrictions are pulling out of that effort, frustrated with the lack of clarity over when a Trump-era policy will be reversed.

It’s the latest indication of tensions bubbling up between the administration and some of its allies over immigration policy, as border authorities continue to rely on a public health order linked to the pandemic that allows them to turn migrants away. Since last October, US Border Patrol has expelled 751,844 migrants under the authority.

Despite wide condemnation of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies, the Biden administration has continued to lean on the public health order, citing health concerns, and has repeatedly warned migrants not to journey to the US southern border. That’s put officials at odds with allies who have implored Biden to ease border restrictions.

Now those organizations that had stepped in to assist the administration are calling it quits.

In May, the Biden administration had shown signs of easing up and announced plans to coordinate with nongovernmental organizations to identify vulnerable migrant families in Mexico and allow them to enter the US, instead of turning them away, in a streamlined process.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said at the time that the department was setting up a process in close coordination with international and nongovernmental organizations to identify and lawfully process particularly vulnerable individuals who warranted humanitarian exceptions under the order. The effort was intended to be temporary, according to members of the consortium.

“The commitment on our side was until the end of this month, with the understanding that Title 42 will be lifted,” said Rachel Levitan, vice president of international programs at HIAS. The refugee assistance group, which has been one of the larger entities involved, will stop participating at the end of August.

“It’s been really tough. We’ve been really happy to be part of some kind of solution to get people over, but at the end of the day all these folks need to come over,” Levitan added.

CNN previously reported that the time line to wind down the policy was in flux due to increasing concerns about rising Covid-19 cases and highly contagious variants. The administration has decided to keep the order in effect for now, according to a source familiar with the matter.

HIAS recently conveyed its position in an email to members of the consortium. “In light of the lack of justification of keeping Title 42 in place for health reasons, and the threat of supporting a system that externalizes US asylum in violation of international human rights law, HIAS will discontinue its Title 42 referrals August 31, 2021,” the organization said. HIAS is using the month of August to close out work with pending cases.

Similarly, the International Rescue Committee is stepping away, according to Meghan Lopez, its regional vice president for Latin America.

“IRC entered into this process with the very explicit understanding and communication that this was a temporary measure only,” Lopez told CNN. “We very much wanted to be part of the solution of moving people toward the fair and just consideration under asylum.” Among the reasons that factored into the decision were concerns over the safety of staff and clients and the continued use of the public health order past July.

Only those cases that remain in the organization’s backlog will continue to be processed after July, Lopez said.

CNN has reached out to DHS for comment.

The frustration with the Biden administration’s reliance on the public health order extends across organizations.

“As it became harder and harder to get any firm commitments from the Biden administration about when this is going to end, it became worrisome,” said Daniel Berlin, deputy director of Asylum Access Mexico, which had also been involved in the effort to identify migrants — until it pulled out in June. The group primarily works with asylum seekers in Mexico, and only a small fraction of those it works with were eligible.

The public health order remains the subject of litigation. Since February, plaintiffs in a case concerning families subject to the order have been in negotiations with the government. As part of the litigation, the American Civil Liberties Union has referred some families to be admitted to the United States, though those referrals are paused for a few days as the organization sorts through a backlog.

“It’s been critical that we’ve been able to get thousands of families into the United States through the humanitarian exemptions built into Title 42, but ultimately, the goal of the litigation is to end Title 42,” said the ACLU’s Lee Gelernt, lead attorney in the litigation over the public health order. “If that goal is no longer feasible, then we would likely have no choice but to go back to court.”

The number of migrant families expelled from the US has declined over recent months. In June, for example, 8,070 families were turned away at the US-Mexico border, down from 9,145 in May, according to US Customs and Border Protection data. Unaccompanied children are exempt from the policy.

But attorneys and advocates warn that those turned away are put in harm’s way, given the dangers of attacks and risk of exploitation in northern Mexico.

The Biden administration has not provided a time line on next steps. An immigration blueprint released by the White House this week made no mention of the public health order and its future.

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