US begins phasing out COVID-driven asylum restrictions

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Jacqueline Flores, left, holds hands with her daughter Nicky at their home in Virginia, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Flores, a member of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, is asking President Joe Biden to end Title 42 and allow her family from El Salvador and other migrants to ask for asylum at the border, after her aunt and cousin were recently expelled to Mexico at the U.S. border under the public health rule that allows border agents to turn away migrants during the pandemic. On Friday, April 22, 2022, the Biden administration acknowledged that it has already begun phasing out use of a pandemic-related public health rule that allows the expulsion of migrants without giving them an opportunity to seek asylum, even as 22 states fight in court to preserve the policy. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Biden administration said Friday it has begun phasing out use of a pandemic-related rule that allows migrants to be expelled without an opportunity to seek asylum as 22 states fight in court to preserve the policy.

U.S. authorities have processed more single adults from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in recent weeks under immigration laws, which include a right to seek asylum, said Blas Nuñez-Neto, acting assistant Homeland Security secretary for border and immigration policy. The pandemic-related rule is set to expire May 23.

Nuñez-Neto's statement was part of a filing in federal court in Lafayette, Louisiana, where Louisiana, Arizona and Missouri sued this month to keep the rule. Eighteen other states later joined and, on Thursday, the states asked a judge to stop what they called the “premature implementation” of the end of the rule.

Nuñez-Neto said applying non-health related immigration laws was “not novel” during the pandemic and that increasing use of them on single adults from Central American countries will help prepare for the May 23 expiration.

About 14% of single adults from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were processed under immigration laws during a seven-day period ending Thursday, Nuñez-Neto said. That's up from only 5% in March, according to government figures.

Single adults from those countries have been targeted under the rule because Mexico has agreed to take them back while the rule is in effect, an option that will disappear for U.S. authorities when the powers are lifted.

It was unclear how quickly the judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays, appointed by former President Donald Trump, would rule on the states' request for a restraining order.

Meanwhile, the state of Texas on Friday filed its own challenge to the termination of the rule in federal court in Victoria, Texas. The case had not been assigned to a judge as of Friday afternoon. The Justice Department declined comment on the Texas suit.

Migrants have been expelled more than 1.8 million times under the rule, which was invoked by the Trump administration in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Advocates for asylum-seekers support the end to the rule, which they say endangers people fleeing persecution back home and violates rights to seek protection under U.S. law and international treaty. The states challenging the administration say the U.S. is not ready for a likely influx of migrants resulting from the rule’s end, straining public services and economies.

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Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

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