(CNN) — The Biden administration is bracing for a surge of migrants at the US-Mexico border when a Covid-era border restriction lifts next month, putting an issue that’s been a political vulnerability for President Joe Biden at the forefront just weeks off his 2024 campaign announcement.

On May 11, when the coronavirus public health emergency ends, a Covid-era border restriction, known as Title 42, will expire, meaning border authorities will no longer be able to quickly expel certain migrants. Instead, authorities will have to return to decades-old protocols at a time of unprecedented mass migration in the Western hemisphere, raising concerns within the administration about a surge in the immediate aftermath of Title 42 lifting.

It comes at a critical moment for Biden who on the heels of launching his 2024 bid will also have to navigate another potential border crisis, opening him up to attacks from Republicans who have hammered the administration and are already wielding the issue to counter the president in the upcoming election and allies who argue his enforcement measures are too harsh.

The handling of the US southern border has dogged Biden over the course of his presidency, starting with an influx of unaccompanied migrant children who caught his administration flatfooted and followed by images of thousands of primarily Haitian migrants gathered under a bridge along the Texas-Mexico border.

Behind the scenes, administration officials have been racing to set up new policies to stem the flow of migration, but even with those put in place, officials recognize that they could face an overwhelming number of people at the border who have been anticipating the end of Title 42, which has been the primary enforcement tool since 2020.

“We do expect that encounters at our southern border will increase as smugglers are seeking to take advantage of this change and already are hard at work spreading disinformation that the border will be open after that. High encounters will place a strain on our entire system, including our dedicated and heroic workforce and our communities,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Thursday.

“Let me be clear: Our border is not open and will not be open after May 11.”

A senior Customs and Border Protection official told CNN that the agency estimates “several thousand” migrants are waiting in northern Mexico to cross the border. El Paso, Texas — which Biden visited in January — and the Rio Grande Valley are among the areas that are expected to see an influx of migrants, officials say.

Officials have stressed that the increase of migrants is the result of historic movement around the globe, and that recently launched programs that provide a way for Venezuelans, Haitians, Cubans and Nicaraguans — all of whom have arrived in larger numbers over the last two years — to apply to come to the United States have proved successful. Those who don’t may be removed to Mexico if they cross the border unlawfully, senior administration officials said Thursday.

“This is a hemispheric challenge that demands hemispheric solutions,” Mayorkas said.

As part of that effort, the Biden administration announced Thursday that it will set up regional processing centers in Latin America for migrants to apply to come to the United States.

The brick-and-mortar centers, which are still being set up, will be located in Colombia and Guatemala — two countries migrants often pass through on their way to the US-Mexico border, senior administration officials told reporters Thursday. Discussions are underway to expand the centers to other countries.

Thursday’s announcement underscores the administration’s approach of setting up additional ways for people to legally migrate to the US, while making clear consequences will be levied against those who don’t take advantage of those pathways.

“The idea is, of course, that people will not continue their journey over land,” a senior administration official said, adding: “The whole idea of regional processing centers is to give people a lawful, safe, regular way to enter the United States.”

In anticipation of a difficult few weeks ahead, White House officials have already started outreach with Congress, sources tell CNN, signaling a shift in strategy from the administration as it tries to get out in front of another crisis. The administration previously faced fierce criticism over immigration policy rollouts without engaging with lawmakers and allies ahead of time.

The Department of Homeland Security also notified Congress on Thursday of its intent to reprogram funds within the department’s budget to support needs to secure the border, Mayorkas said, adding, “This notification of repurposing existing funds is only a fraction of what we will ultimately need.”

“Engagement without substance can also backfire,” one source told CNN.

The Department of Homeland Security also notified Congress Thursday of their intent to reprogram funds within the department’s budget to support needs to secure the border, Mayorkas said, adding: “This notification of repurposing existing funds is only a fraction of what we will ultimately need.”

The number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border has already begun to climb in recent weeks, reaching around 7,000 encounters daily, according to two Homeland Security officials.

“The key is going to be a good processing pathway, hopefully one that provides a consequence to deter a larger surge,” the senior US Customs and Border Protection official told CNN. “Without that, a bigger surge will be encouraged, and we’re going to find ourselves over capacity,” the official added, describing a worst-case scenario as being at capacity in custody and left with no decompression measures.

The return to traditional protocols includes restoring legal consequences for migrants who try to repeatedly cross the US-Mexico border, which officials expect may deter crossers. Under Title 42, the number of repeat crossers shot up amid little to no consequence.

“We have been spending a lot of time and energy over the last year identifying efficiencies in our Title 8 expedited removal processes and we will bring them all to bear on this challenge in the coming days and weeks,” another senior administration official said Thursday.

Officials have keenly aware since the opening days in office that at some point the pandemic-era policy would come to an end. The latest phase of preparations is part of an effort that’s long been underway.

Those plans include a new regulation that would largely bar migrants who traveled through other countries on their way to the US-Mexico border from applying for asylum in the United States and assigning around 500 employees working in other programs of US Citizenship and Immigration Service to help interview migrants who ask for asylum.

Officials are also gradually restarting a policy that requires that some migrants remain in CBP facilities for the first step in the asylum process. Those screenings usually happen in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, which typically have spaces for the sensitive interviews, or after release. DHS has said that migrants will have access to counsel. But the execution of the policy came up in a call with Senate staffers this week where staffers shared concerns that migrants may not be able to reach attorneys.

Policies aside, officials have been preparing for a surge operationally by adding capacity and asking for resources to increase deportation flights.

“We’re certainly asking for additional planes and resources to fly more removal flights, more quickly, more often to the some of the countries we’re getting hammered the most on,” Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tae Johnson told lawmakers last week. Johnson maintained that no decisions have been made to restart family detention, adding that the US won’t be able to “detain our way out of this.” Mayorkas reiterated Thursday that there are “no plans to detain families.”

But even as the administration tries to dissuade migrants from taking the dangerous journey, thousands of people continue to traverse the Darién Gap, a treacherous stretch of jungle connecting Panama and Colombia that has also served as a barometer of who and how many people are coming to the US.

The Biden administration recently struck an agreement with Panama and Colombia to reduce the flow of people going through the Darién Gap. The agreement will tackle illicit movement, making legal pathways to the US or other countries more accessible and promoting economic and sustainable opportunities, according to a joint statement from the US, Panama and Colombia.

Another senior Biden administration official told CNN that will include increasing patrols on the Panama and Colombia border, arresting and prosecuting smugglers and facilitating access to already available legal pathways to the US and other countries.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the administration’s broader approach on migration as focused on “making migration more safe, orderly and humane,” adding that the world is facing unprecedented movement of people, including in the Western hemisphere.

“Of course, many of these investments can take time to bear fruit,” Blinken said, adding that the US is working with regional partners to also see results in the near term.

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