U.S. leaning toward ending COVID-era expulsions of migrants at Mexico border - sources

WASHINGTON, March 9 (Reuters) - President Joe Biden's administration is leaning toward ending a COVID-era order that has blocked more than a million migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter, a major policy shift that would restore the U.S. asylum system but could provoke backlash from Republicans.

A third official said the policy was being actively debated and a decision could come within weeks, though the outcome was not yet clear. All three requested anonymity to provide details on internal conversations.

The discussions, which have not been previously reported, were prompted by recent U.S. court decisions that complicate the implementation of the so-called "Title 42" border order coupled with major moves by U.S. public health officials to loosen pandemic restrictions across the United States, the officials said. read more

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The order was issued by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March 2020 at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic by former Republican President Donald Trump. But Biden, a Democrat, has kept it in place - and defended it in court - despite promises to roll back Trump's most hardline immigration policies.

Health experts and immigrant rights advocates have been pushing for its end, arguing the policy unlawfully cuts off access to asylum and that scientific evidence does not support its stated goal of helping to curb the spread of the virus. read more

Title 42 allows U.S. authorities to rapidly expel migrants caught at the border, either to Mexico or other countries, without a chance to seek refuge in the United States. Since it went into effect, migrants have been turned away more than 1.6 million times under the policy, though some of those encounters were individuals crossing multiple times.

Border arrests soared to record levels in 2021 during Biden's first year in office and could climb even higher this year, officials told Reuters in January, sparking criticism from Republicans ahead of November midterm elections. read more

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) office of strategy, policy and plans, which advises top agency officials, backs ending the order, one of the sources said. However, the source said, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees border security and falls under DHS, would like to keep it.

DHS spokesperson Marsha Espinosa said the Title 42 order "remains in place" and that the agency defers to the CDC over its use. The agency has said in the past that COVID-19 presents an outsize risk in crowded border stations.

The White House also directed a request for comment to the CDC and said only officials inside the health agency would be involved in decision-making. The CDC did not immediately respond.

The CDC has said that it reviews the order every 60 days to determine whether it remains necessary to protect public health. The next renewal is slated for early April.

Early in his presidency, Biden exempted unaccompanied children from the expulsion policy, but a federal judge in Texas ruled on March 4 that minors could not be excluded in a case brought by the state of Texas against the administration.

The Texas ruling, which is at odds with another U.S. district court order in 2020 blocking expulsions of unaccompanied children, goes into effect on Friday. The deadline has put pressure on the administration to consider whether to roll back the order entirely, one official said. read more

In a separate March 4 ruling, a federal appeals court said the administration can continue to use Title 42 to expel migrant families caught crossing the southwest border, but should not send them anywhere they could be persecuted or tortured.

Advocates who brought that legal challenge cheered the ruling as a victory, but it was not immediately clear how it would be implemented on the ground.

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Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Aurora Ellis

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