By Ted Hesson and Mica Rosenberg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Biden administration is planning to use pandemic-era restrictions to expel many Cuban, Nicaraguan and Haitian migrants caught at the southwest border back to Mexico, while simultaneously allowing some to enter the United States by air on humanitarian grounds, according to three U.S. officials familiar on the matter.
This latest policy under consideration comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that pandemic-era restrictions, known as Title 42, must stay in place for what could be months as a legal battle over their future plays out.
Under Title 42, which was originally issued in March 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic under Republican former President Donald Trump, border agents can rapidly expel migrants to Mexico without giving them a chance to seek asylum.
Frosty diplomatic relations between the United States and the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have complicated deportations to those countries. Increasing numbers of migrants from those countries have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking U.S. asylum amid economic and political turmoil at home.
The new rules for Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians would be modeled on an existing program for Venezuelans launched in October. The program allows up to 24,000 Venezuelans outside the United States to apply to enter the country by air through "humanitarian parole" if they have U.S. sponsors. Venezuelans arrested trying to cross border are generally returned to Mexico.
Mexico has only accepted the expulsion of some nationalities, mostly Mexicans and Central Americans, under Title 42. But after Mexico agreed to accept back Venezuelans in October, their crossings dropped dramatically, with some giving up and returning home.
Two officials said the policy shift for Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans could come as soon as this week. A third official said it could be applied to the first two groups this week and Nicaraguans at a later date. No final decisions have been made, a fourth U.S. official told Reuters. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
Haiti has accepted deportees and migrants expelled under Title 42 but lawmakers and advocates have criticized the Biden administration for returning people while the country is going through political and economic turmoil.
Deportation, under a statute known as Title 8, is a more formal and drawn out process that can lead to long bars on U.S. re-entry as compared to expulsions that can take just hours under Title 42.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Mexican officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
U.S. officials said Title 42 was originally put in place to curb the spread of COVID, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has since said it is no longer needed for public health reasons. Immigrant advocates says it exposes vulnerable migrants to serious risks, like kidnapping or assault, in Mexican border towns.
U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has struggled with unprecedented levels of migrant crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border since taking office in January 2021, fueling criticism from Republicans and some members of his own party who say his policies are too lax.
U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended a record 2.2 million migrants at the southwest border in the 2022 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Close to half of those arrested were rapidly expelled under the Title 42 policy.
Under the new Venezuelan parole program, more than 14,000 Venezuelans had been vetted and received approval to travel to the United States and more than 5,900 had already arrived lawfully as of Nov. 30, according to DHS.
Following the launch of the Venezuelan program, the number of Venezuelans caught crossing into the United States illegally fell nearly 70% from about 21,000 encounters in October to 6,200 in November, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data released last week.
Cuban and Nicaraguan crossings increased 38% during that same period with about 68,000 migrants entering the country in November, up from 49,000 a month earlier.
Few Haitians have been caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months as thousands have been allowed to request humanitarian entry at U.S. ports of entry.
In a border management plan released earlier this month, the agency said it intended to build on the model presented by the Venezuelan program.
The parole program for Venezuelans was similar to one created following Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine that allows Ukrainians with U.S. sponsors to enter and temporarily stay in the United States by applying from outside the country.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Mary Milliken and Aurora Ellis)