By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
(Phoenix) — The public health emergency order known as "Title 42" was added to the United States Code via the Public Health Service Act of 1944.
For more than 75 years, Title 42 provisions went practically-unused, even after the power to invoke the provisions was transferred from the Surgeon General to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That all changed in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In conjunction with then-CDC Director Robert Redfield former president Donald Trump's administration activated Title 42 for the first time. Since then, the health order has been used to expel close to two million migrants seeking entry into the U.S.
The choice to invoke Title 42 at the start of the pandemic, despite specious evidence that immigration was driving up COVID case numbers, has been controversial ever since.
But on April 1, present CDC head Rochelle Walensky ordered an end to the Title 42 expulsions, effective May 23. And with Arizona in a unique geographical and cultural position as a border state, the current lack of detailed guidance from President Joe Biden's administration on a delicate topic is concerning to the state's lawmakers and other elected officials.
"If Title 42 is simply lifted without a comprehensive plan to deal with the influx of migrants, we are just setting ourselves up for difficulty, and continuing to allow political parties to engage in back-and-forth political rhetoric," Arizona State Senator Rebecca Rios told NewsBreak in a recent interview.
Senator Rios, the chamber's Minority Leader, explained that without cooperation between the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services, the path to processing scores of migrants along the southern border during the anticipated post-Title 42 ingress is unclear.
The continued uncertainty comes in handy for many state lawmakers during election cycles — a phenomenon Rios has seen time and time again during her career.
"This is their go-to issue, knowing it upsets and riles up the base," Rios said. "They make false promises about building the wall and finishing the wall, when the reality is we know that there will always be gaps in the wall, either because of natural landscapes that don't allow for the wall to be built, (or) environmental concerns, or private property that won't allow for gaps to be fixed."
Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb has pointedly criticized border security efforts for months, in large part because human smuggling remains prevalent in Arizona's third-largest county. PCSO deputies last month halted an alleged smuggling attempt in Casa Grande.
"These policies are not working, the bad guys understand this, and they're just continuing to traffic humans and drugs into this country," Lamb told Fox Business in February.
"Had (lawmakers) done their job in the first place (and) protected our borders, they wouldn't have so many people to have to deal with that need to be deported now," Lamb said. "This problem's only going to get worse, day by day. The longer they go without securing this border, they can expect it to get worse, and the funding (need) to only be greater."
Rios, a former Pinal County resident with familial ties to the area, pointed out that Lamb and Arizona governor Doug Ducey share the same Republican affiliation and aspirations at the border. Ducey created the Arizona Border Strike Force in 2015, and on April 19, he was among 26 Republican governors to announce the creation of an American Governors' Border Strike Force.
"At the end of the day, everybody acknowledges that we definitely have issues at the border," Rios said. "And even though Pinal County is not a border county, the reality is that there are unfortunately instances of human smuggling and drug trafficking, and that comes across the border into all parts of Arizona.
"When Sheriff Lamb criticizes (border security), he's making a direct hit at the Republican administration that has been in charge of the border situation now for 13 years ... he's got a direct line to a Republican governor that he can work with."
One prominent Arizona political candidate's recent flip on Title 42 expulsions demonstrates how sensitive and complicated the issue has become.
Katie Hobbs, the Arizona Secretary of State and current Democratic frontrunner in the gubernatorial race, initially supported President Biden's position of rolling back Title 42 — she told 3TV's Dennis Welch early last month that "Title 42 isn't working." But by the end of April, Hobbs had changed her tune and told CNN that Biden should keep the measure in place, a reversal symbolic of the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the health order's future.
Hobbs's Republican opponents for governor — former congressman Matt Salmon, wealthy businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson, and Trump-endorsed frontrunner Kari Lake — all jumped on the U-turn. They have sought to damage Hobbs's hopes of replacing Governor Ducey in November, painting the reversal as proof that she is "soft on immigration."
“What’s happening at our border is a humanitarian crisis, and it’s going to take sound judgment and a strong backbone to fix it," Salmon's statement read. "As Arizona’s next governor, I have a detailed, actionable plan and proven record of achievement to do just that.”
But Salmon's ostensible solution is a new Tent City, an extremist plan that lacks substantial support given the litany of problems encountered at the original facility under ex-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's direction.
Sen. Rios explained that at any rate, Arizona and the other states along the country's northern and southern borders have relatively little say in immigration policy. Ultimately, without a national directive, states are reduced to passing stopgap measures.
"The fact of the matter is, like it or not, this is a federal issue that states largely have little to no power to rectify," Rios said. "That is very frustrating for politicians on both sides of the aisle, because people rightly look to their legislators for help and for answers. It's frustrating as legislators to have to keep telling them 'this is an issue that can only be addressed at the federal level.'"
NewsBreak requested comment from the Arizona House of Representatives' GOP caucus, but a message left with a caucus spokesperson went unreturned.