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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Migrant shelters in El Paso, Texas, are overflowing, and some people have been released directly into the streets.

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Federal authorities are scrambling to process thousands of migrants who've crossed the border from Mexico in recent days. All of this is happening as pandemic border restrictions are set to end in less than a week.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. Joel, tell us more about what's been happening in El Paso.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Sure. Migrants are waiting across the Rio Grande and lining up to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents in big numbers, more than 2,000 a day in recent days in El Paso alone. Many are hoping to seek asylum in the U.S. Here's Ruben Garcia, the executive director of Annunciation House, which runs a network of migrant shelters in El Paso, speaking yesterday on the public radio program Texas Standard.

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RUBEN GARCIA: We've just seen a huge number of refugees that are crossing the border at this particular time. And of course, it's creating a tremendous challenge.

ROSE: Garcia says both nonprofits and the city of El Paso need more money to deal with this influx of migrants and potentially also need more space to put these migrants on an emergency basis.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Joel, why now in particular?

ROSE: Many of these migrants are fleeing from Latin America, and some say they are trying to get into the U.S. before border policy changes that they think may be coming soon. It's possible that other migrants are going to wait and see what happens when these pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42 end, which is set to happen next week. These restrictions were first put in place under former President Donald Trump. They've allowed immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants without giving them a chance to seek asylum in the U.S. Now a federal judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled that those restrictions are unlawful and given the Biden administration until December 21 to stop using them.

MARTÍNEZ: So what then might happen next week if Title 42 indeed ends?

ROSE: There's a lot of concern that thousands more migrants will try to cross all at once. The Biden administration is reportedly considering some big changes that would sharply limit who can seek asylum at the border. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was in El Paso yesterday. He was meeting with immigration authorities, along with local political and nonprofit leaders. And he also talked to a few reporters in El Paso, including Angela Kocherga with member station KTEP.

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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We believe in the asylum system. We've worked very, very hard to reconstruct it after it was dismantled by the prior administration, but also, building lawful, safe, orderly, humane pathways.

ROSE: Mayorkas said there are a lot of discussions underway about policy changes but no final decisions yet. The administration is really trying to find a balance here between allowing migrants to seek asylum protections, especially the most vulnerable, while also discouraging migrants who don't have good asylum claims from crossing illegally. And like previous administrations, I think they're finding this can be a very difficult balance to strike.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and here's the thing - I mean, there's still a legal fight over Title 42. So where does that stand?

ROSE: Yes, there's a legal challenge that's still pending from Republican attorneys general in 19 states, including Arizona and Louisiana. Many of these are the same states, by the way, that successfully blocked Title 42 from ending back in the spring, when the Biden administration tried to end these restrictions before. This week, the states filed an emergency motion with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the court to keep Title 42 in place while this legal challenge plays out. The states have asked the court to rule on that request by Friday. If the states don't succeed there, they will likely turn to the Supreme Court next.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. Joel, thanks.

ROSE: You're welcome.

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MARTÍNEZ: China is grappling with a surge of COVID-19 cases following the loosening of its zero-COVID restrictions.

SCHMITZ: The situation is so serious that Chinese leaders have reportedly delayed a key annual economic policy meeting in Beijing this week.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's John Ruwitch has been following the situation. John, it was - what? - less than a month ago when people there had to do near-daily COVID tests, and they were getting quarantined and locked down. That pretty much is now out the window. So what's it been like now?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Right. Everything seems to have changed. You know, a week ago, the government introduced 10 changes to the approach to COVID. And what's unfolding now is, really, the biggest spike in cases since the pandemic started three years ago, and it's just getting started. The virus is spreading rapidly, and in all likelihood, what we're going to see is going to dwarf everything that's come before it in China. The capital, Beijing, for instance, is in the midst of a serious outbreak. You know, many people I know there are positive. There are loads of anecdotes of companies shifting to work-from-home because of cases or restaurants closing because cooks and servers are sick. Pharmacies, shops, hospitals are even reporting substantial portions of their staff reporting they've tested positive.

You know, official statistics of positive tests are interesting. They're down. They don't really reflect the situation anymore, though, because the government has scaled back formal testing and monitoring.

MARTÍNEZ: So then does anyone really know how many people are infected or might be infected?

RUWITCH: The simple answer is no. Experts are very certain that the virus is spreading extremely quickly. As a small example of that, what's happening in Beijing - the city said on Sunday the number of people who visited outpatient fever clinics was 16 times the figure from a week earlier. Emergency calls to the equivalent of 911 in Beijing on Friday were six times the normal number. For now, the vast majority of cases do appear to be mild. There's not widespread reporting of ICUs being overrun or anything like that yet. It's spreading around the country, though, beyond Beijing. There appear to be a lot of cases in neighboring Hubei province, as well as in Guangzhou down south. Shanghai, interestingly, which had a two-month lockdown in the spring, so far hasn't been hit to the same degree for now.

MARTÍNEZ: So how are authorities then dealing with this surge? Because I thought the whole idea for zero-COVID was to save lives, to keep their hospital system from being overrun.

RUWITCH: It was. The authorities now seem committed to this new tack, though, and they don't have a lot of great options other than to just gird for this wave of cases that's coming. Sun Chunlan, who's a vice premier who's been managing the COVID response, visited Beijing health officials this week, and she really encapsulated the shift clearly. She said the priority now needs to be shifted from preventing infection to treating the ill and protecting those at risk, namely the elderly, people with underlying conditions, children. The authorities have also been reminding folks that most omicron infections are mild, they're going to be treatable and that there's no need to go clog up hospitals in most cases.

And that really gets to the big worry that's sort of underlying all of this, and that's that China's hospital system just isn't equipped to handle the volume of cases that they may see. They just don't have the intensive care unit beds.

MARTÍNEZ: I know that China is having trouble getting people vaccinated. What about that?

RUWITCH: Yeah. There's a fresh and urgent vaccination drive underway. They're targeting especially the elderly, a large percentage of whom have not received a booster shot yet. We have seen an uptick in vaccinations over the past couple of weeks. But they're playing catch-up, really, with a rapidly spreading virus, and it may be too late in some places.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's John Ruwitch. John, thanks.

RUWITCH: You bet.

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MARTÍNEZ: Somalia is facing a major food crisis, and the U.N. warns that parts of the country could experience a full famine by April of next year.

SCHMITZ: The crisis in the East African nation is being driven by a prolonged drought, terror attacks by al-Shabab and a spike in global food prices.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in the southern Somali city of Baidoa, which is one of the places that the U.N. warns could suffer a famine in 2023. Jason, what is happening in that city that makes these experts predict that there's going to be a famine there in the coming months?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Well, for one, the food situation is already really dire here. Baidoa is a city in southwestern Somalia. It's, you know, surrounded by areas controlled by al-Shabab militants. And it's become a magnet for people who are fleeing from areas where crops have failed repeatedly over the last two years. People are showing up destitute, and now you've got hundreds of thousands of them. They're living in these makeshift camps on the edges of the city. They came hoping for international food aid, but many I've talked to here say that that aid is incredibly limited, if they're getting it at all. So people are describing begging or gathering sticks to just sell as firewood to survive.

You know, and I'm hearing from people that there's nothing even to go back to in their villages. Their crops have failed. Even their goats are dead. I mean, they're goats. They can survive on just about anything. They're dying because there's no vegetation on the lands that they usually graze on. And aid groups are saying that more desperate, hungry people are showing up at these camps every day.

MARTÍNEZ: How much, Jason, are the terror attacks - how much of an impact are they having on the current food crisis?

BEAUBIEN: You know, a lot, and in particular because al-Shabab is controlling a lot of the rural areas that have been hit the hardest by this drought, and al-Shabab has banned international food aid, and it actually attacks relief agencies as they tried to deliver it. Al-Shabab remains incredibly powerful in this part of Somalia, and they actually control all the roads into Baidoa. So, you know, even for aid agencies, they can only get their stuff in here by plane, and it's making things incredibly difficult.

MARTÍNEZ: And it's got to be also really difficult for these relief groups to operate there, to actually do things.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, exactly. You know, in the midst of this dire food crisis in which children are already starving, children are already dying here, getting more food aid in has become just this incredibly complex process. Somalia is already one of the poorest countries in the world. Now they're in the midst of the worst drought they've had in 40 years. And it isn't like, you know, the Somali government simply has stockpiles of grain just sitting around in warehouses in Mogadishu. Any surge in food that's going to come into this country, it has to come in from outside, yet al-Shabab is battling against that. At the same time, you've got the war in Ukraine. It's pushed up the cost of grain significantly. Before the war in Ukraine, Somalia got 90% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Now wheat here is harder to get. It's more expensive.

This is a situation, you know, that's just getting worse by the day, people say. Is it as bad as the famine in 2011 that killed a quarter of a million people here? No, not yet. But, you know, for a mother whose child is emaciated and starving, that doesn't really matter. And the U.N. is warning that this crisis is likely to deepen as less food is grown domestically and getting food from abroad becomes increasingly difficult.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Baidoa, Somalia, one of the regions projected to be facing a very severe food crisis in the coming year. Jason, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.