Of course, the pandemic upended everything. The administration invoked Title 42 of the Public Health Safety Act to exclude migrants altogether. The risk of people coming into the country with no screening, after traveling through multiple countries perhaps in large groups, became much greater during the pandemic. Border facilities weren’t built with a pandemic in mind, and with proper social distancing and other precautions it would have been difficult to hold any significant number of migrants. Finally, there was the risk to border agents to consider — they couldn’t work remotely.
Under Title 42, migrants would be turned around, with the ability only to claim that they couldn’t go back because of fear of torture, usually rejected.
“It allowed us to repatriate 85 or 90-plus percent of folks coming across the border in under two hours,” Cuccinelli says, “and we didn’t bring them into our facilities.”
It’s probably what most people imagine happening on the border all the time, which is that an illegal crosser who gets caught is returned home with dispatch.
Overall, the administration had created a tool kit with which it could address the border in multiple ways. “There were a number of pathways that were available to conclude cases quickly,” says the former DHS official. “And the word got out that we were no longer open for business, that it was not just presenting yourself at the border and getting in anywhere you want to go in the country.”