U.S. expands COVID vaccinations of migrants in border custody

▶ Watch Video: As highly transmissible Omicron subvariant spreads, what do Americans need to know?

The Biden administration is expanding efforts to vaccinate migrants in U.S. custody against the coronavirus as border authorities prepare for potential policy changes that could increase the number of people they need to process, according to a notification shared with Congress and obtained by CBS News.

U.S. agents will begin to offer COVID-19 vaccines to migrants in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody who are processed under regular immigration procedures and can’t show proof of vaccination, the March 25 notification states.

The vaccine program, which was set to start Monday, will not apply to those processed for expulsion under a pandemic-era emergency policy known as Title 42 that is currently under legal scrutiny.

The vaccination efforts are set to start at 11 locations along the southern border, before expanding to 16 additional sites by April 8, according to the congressional notification, which says officials hope to distribute 2,700 vaccines per day during the first phase. After expanding to phase 2, slated to begin on April 18, officials expect to be able to vaccinate up to 6,000 migrants daily by late May.

Before Monday’s announcement, the U.S. had only offered COVID-19 vaccination to immigrants in long-term Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, migrant children in the federal shelter system and fewer than 2,000 asylum-seekers enrolled in a program that requires them to await their court hearings in Mexico.

US -Mexico border
Migrants attempting to cross in to the U.S. from Mexico are detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the border August 15, 2021 in San Luis, Arizona. (Courtesy Getty Images)

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesperson Eduardo Maia Silva confirmed the expanded vaccination effort, calling it “a public health best practice.”

“In order to further safeguard public health and ensure the safety of border communities, the workforce, and migrants, DHS is now expanding these efforts and, beginning today, requiring that noncitizens taken into CBP custody for further immigration processing at the Southwest land border be given age-appropriate COVID-19 vaccines,” he said.

The Biden administration has been considering offering COVID-19 vaccines to migrants along the southern border since at least the early summer of 2021, when officials proposed vaccinating all adult members of families as a way to wind down Title 42 for that population, according to an internal DHS plan obtained by CBS News.

But that plan was scrapped by top White House officials, including domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, who feared that unwinding Title 42 would increase the political pressure on the administration amid a record number of border arrivals and encourage more migrants to journey north, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

At the time, officials said offering vaccines to migrants could be “a draw to crossing the border without authorization,” according to an internal DHS document.

The vaccination policy change, which was first reported by CNN, comes as U.S. border officials await an imminent announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on whether the agency will continue, modify or terminate the Title 42 expulsion policy, which was first enacted by the Trump administration in March 2020.

Title 42 has allowed U.S. border agents to rapidly expel migrants to Mexico or their native countries, bypassing immigration laws that require officials to interview asylum-seekers who ask for U.S. humanitarian protection to determine whether they have valid claims.

U.S. officials have carried out 1.7 million expulsions under Title 42, over 70% of them under President Biden, CBP figures show. However, the Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children and has faced a historic number of migrant arrivals in the past year.

The Biden administration has said Title 42 is needed to keep migrants from crowding short-term border facilities where the coronavirus could rapidly spread. But a ruling earlier this month could force the administration to change or wind down the policy.

If upheld, an order by the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. will require border officials next month to interview migrant families traveling with children before expelling them to ensure they are not fleeing persecution or torture, or to stop processing this population under Title 42, as was the plan last summer.

The CDC said earlier this month that its director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, will decide by Wednesday, March 30, whether officials should continue to expel migrant families and adults under Title 42.

In response to a ruling from a federal judge in Texas that barred the administration from continuing to exempt unaccompanied minors from the border expulsions, Walensky issued an order rescinding her Title 42 directives as they pertain to these children.

In her order, Walensky cited improving pandemic conditions, rising vaccination rates in the U.S. and in migrants’ home countries, and the availability of other mitigation protocols. She said there was no need to expel migrant children because they’re offered COVID- 19 testing and vaccination while in the U.S. shelter system.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up