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By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is expected to delay a partial rollback of a controversial migrant expulsion policy, according to three people familiar with the matter, citing fears related to the fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus.
The administration of President Joe Biden had planned to exempt migrant families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border from the expulsion policy by July 31, while continuing to keep it for individuals, sources familiar with the discussions told Reuters earlier this month.
The partial rollback of the Title 42 policy was delayed because the Biden administration "put the brakes on it" due to concerns over the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant and the rising number of infections in Mexico, one of the people said.
It is now unclear when the order could be lifted for families or in its entirety.
Biden, a Democrat, has been under intense pressure from human rights groups, some fellow Democrats, migrant advocacy groups and United Nations refugee officials to end the Trump-era policy they say leads to thousands of expelled migrants facing kidnappings and other violence in northern Mexico.
Biden has kept Title 42 in place as border arrests have risen to their highest monthly levels in 20 years. Since he took office in January, migrants have been expelled under Title 42 more than 500,000 times, although many of those include repeat border crossers.
"It will remain in place as long as that is the guidance from our health and medical experts," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing on Monday, referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She added that the administration had never publicly set a date for ending it.
U.S. coronavirus cases have been rising due to the Delta variant, which emerged in India but has quickly spread and now accounts for more than 80% of U.S. coronavirus cases.
Biden risks alienating pro-migrant allies and members of his own party if he continues to keep Title 42, which was one of former President Donald Trump's most restrictive immigration policies.
The administration already faces a legal challenge over the family expulsions led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACLU agreed in February to pause litigation so that the parties could attempt to resolve or narrow the dispute but will decide by Monday whether to resume the legal challenge, according to Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's immigrants’ rights project.
"(Title 42) has caused enormous hardship and could never be justified on public health grounds," Gelernt said in an emailed statement to Reuters. "By August 2 we will alert the court whether it is time for us to end negotiations and resume the litigation, which we always said we would do if an end to Title 42 is not in sight."
Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat whose congressional district includes part of Los Angeles, said the Biden administration did not have an adequate rationale for expelling asylum seekers while allowing hundreds of thousands of legal travelers and other migrants caught at the border to enter the United States.
Chu joined a group of more than 60 Democratic lawmakers who earlier this year urged the Biden administration to end the policy.
"They're just indiscriminately rejecting people and sending them back," she said in an interview.
Still, the Biden administration exempted unaccompanied children from the policy in February and has been phasing it out for migrant families arriving at the southern border.
In June, 84% of the roughly 50,000 migrant family members caught at the southern border were allowed into the United States to pursue their cases.
The White House, CDC and Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
CNN first reported last week on a possible delay to the rollback of the order for families.
CONSEQUENCES OF THE DELAY
Thousands of migrants have been granted humanitarian exceptions to the border policy under an informal program managed on the ground by a consortium of non-profit organizations who help to identify those most vulnerable.
The program has mitigated the impact of Title 42, but a number of the non-profits have either ended their participation in it or are planning to in the coming weeks, compounding the impact of the delay in rolling back Title 42.
"We have made a commitment to do this until the end of August," said Rachel Levitan, vice president for international programs with HIAS, a refugee organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. "That is the end of the line for us."
While Biden is under pressure to end Title 42, he is also being pressed by Republicans and some Democrats in border states to keep it in place.
Migrant crossings typically taper off in the hot summer months, but arrests at the southern border rose in June to the highest level since April 2000. The tally in July is expected to be similar or even higher, according to two border patrol officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents a border district in south Texas, is urging the Biden administration to keep the policy and step up immigration enforcement to discourage people from crossing.
"They're afraid to show people being deported because they don't want to offend the left," Cuellar said. "I think they put so much emphasis on the immigration activists. They need to start paying attention to the border communities."
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco, and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Ross Colvin and Aurora Ellis)