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How one Arizona city is preparing for a potential influx of migrants


Officials in cities and towns near the southern border are bracing for a potential influx of migrants as the Biden administration moves to lift the pandemic-era restrictions called Title 42. The rules imposed by the Trump administration let authorities turn away migrants and asylum-seekers on public health grounds. They're set to end next month. I spoke with Regina Romero. She's the mayor of Tucson, Ariz., 70 miles north of the U.S. border with Mexico.

REGINA ROMERO: We have seen these surges of people coming through our southern border before. This is not the first time that Tucson and other border communities have to deal with this. We saw this type of surge during the Trump administration, there - during the Obama administration and before. And so here in Tucson, we have a network of government and nonprofits that have worked together to help asylum-seekers on our border. And so we're not new to it. What we are asking the Biden administration is that they have the resources necessary to be able to have these local communities take over, because it costs money to be able to offer a safe place for asylum-seekers to come.

MARTÍNEZ: The plan is to lift it by the end of next month. Is there enough time to do any of the things you just mentioned?

ROMERO: Yes, there is time. We can do this. We did it throughout the COVID emergency. The city of Tucson and Pima County got together, and we used motels and hotels to make sure that we were separating and not putting people into shelter type of situations.

MARTÍNEZ: What did you make, Mayor, of the Biden administration not only continuing Title 42 after the Trump administration, but also defending it in court, as it has?

ROMERO: I think that it's important that we move forward by lifting Title 42, upholding our nation's legal obligation and moral duty. And I usually like to compare what is happening now - right? - in a context of people fleeing their countries because - for example, in - our European allies are providing refuge to those fleeing war in Ukraine. I feel that we, as a country, as the United States, are responsible to do the same for those arriving in our southern border.

MARTÍNEZ: But, Mayor, if lifting it, as you say, is the right thing, why was it the wrong thing? Did it ever make sense considering where we were at the height of the pandemic?

ROMERO: It is - it's a difficult question because, of course, we want to make sure that we keep U.S. residents safe in terms of public health and public safety. But COVID was here, and it got here in - through the air and it got here through different borders. And so I believe that more than using it as a public safety tool, it was used more as a political tool to keep asylum-seekers and immigrants out of this country, specifically those asylum-seekers and immigrants coming through the southern border.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you spoke at a conference earlier this year saying that Washington urgently needs immigration reform. You said the major issue facing immigration policy is that it's not based on facts. The conversation in our country is polarized. So, Mayor, what types of facts do you want to get across?

ROMERO: That it is not an invasion, as people would want to characterize what we live through in Arizona and throughout the borderlands. We can no longer give in to the anti-immigrant political gamesmanship by Republicans trying to trivialize the right to seek asylum and the need we have for immigrant labor in this country. You know, when my parents immigrated, they immigrated the entire family. It took six months, from start to finish, to immigrate, legally, our family. Nowadays, it takes more than 10 years. And right now, that the country sees a shortage of labor, we could easily ease the systems that we have so that people can, as some like to say, get in line and seek their immigration status in a legal manner.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Regina Romero, mayor of Tucson. Mayor, thank you.

ROMERO: Thank you so much, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "GOLDEN HILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.