Under-fire US immigration chief unveils border plan as crisis worsens

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US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the administration's handling of immigration Wednesday amid a huge surge at the Mexico border that is expected to intensify as pandemic-related entry curbs are dropped.

President Joe Biden's administration has revealed it plans to end Title 42, a measure allowing the quick expulsion of migrants during the Covid-19 crisis, on May 23 -- in an announcement that sparked cross-party anger.

US Customs and Border Protection says it encountered 7,800 undocumented migrants a day along the southwest border in the past three weeks -- almost five times the average of 1,600 recorded from 2014-2019, before the coronavirus outbreak.

"We inherited a broken and dismantled system that is already under strain. It is not built to manage the current levels and types of migratory flows," Mayorkas told the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, urging Congress to pass long-term reforms.

Mayorkas's testimony came with the administration locking horns with a federal court in Louisiana that granted a request by Republican-controlled states to temporarily halt their planning to wind down Title 42.

The order prevents the government from taking any action before a hearing on May 13 to determine whether Title 42 can be lifted.

Mayorkas set out a blueprint to boost border personnel, target people smugglers, speed up processing and increase holding capacity -- as he warned the worst was yet to come.

"A significant increase in migrant encounters will strain our system even further and we will address this challenge successfully," he said.

"It will take time, and we need the partnership of Congress, state and local officials, NGOs and communities to do so."

Enacted at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 under then-president Donald Trump, Title 42 requires border agents to turn away anyone who crosses undocumented into the United States.

- 'Failure' to secure border -

Since then, migrants have been expelled more than 1.7 million times under the policy.

The decision on dropping Title 42 was made by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which said it was "no longer necessary" due to "an increased availability of tools to fight Covid-19."

But Biden and Mayorkas, as the faces of the administration's immigration policy, are taking the heat for the mushrooming controversy.

Ahead of his testimony, 130 House Republicans sent Mayorkas a letter slamming his "failure to secure the border and enforce the laws passed by Congress" and questioning his suitability for his job.

Conservatives complain the Mayorkas plan doesn't include any major new expenditure, any prospect of the CDC reversing its Title 42 decision or a pledge to complete Trump's controversial border wall.

Meanwhile border-state Democrats up for reelection in the November midterms have voiced frustration about the White House's handling of the issue, accusing it of failing to come up with a Plan B for controlling the border.

The Senate was deadlocked Wednesday over a push to pass legislation that would keep Title 42 from ending.

Republicans are likely to demand a vote reinstate the measure as part of any action to approve the next tranche of Covid-19 relief -- and both of those initiatives could end up entangled in legislation to greenlight further aid to Ukraine, which is battling a two-month invasion by Russia.

"It is inappropriate to use a public health law -- Title 42, that deals principally with quarantines -- to try to deal with an immigration challenge that we face," Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee.

"It's like using a knife to do work that you would use a screwdriver to do," he added.

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