The Trump administration’s three-year campaign to block access to asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border led to its use of a scorched-earth tactic at the start of the coronavirus pandemic – border expulsions under orders from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC has finally terminated its expulsion order known as Title 42, effective in May, after which the Biden administration can resume asylum processing. This has prompted shameful politicking to maintain the border closure, including by prominent members of the president’s own party.
On Monday, a federal judge temporarily blocked the Biden administration from ending Title 42. But even before that happened, there was talk that the repeal would be delayed. Several Democratic senators have signed on to a bill to keep the measure in place.
In this critical moment, the administration should clearly refine and defend its plans to restore access to asylum and vigorously oppose any legislative efforts to maintain the expulsions.
Expulsions make the border less safe, particularly for those who make repeated dangerous attempts to cross. Each time, migrants and asylum seekers are often increasingly exhausted, dehydrated and sick. Once expelled, they have been met with cruelty and targeted violence in northern Mexico, remote areas of the jungle in Central America or their countries of origin. This includes Haiti, where the government has lost control over strategic areas to the hands of dangerous armed gangs, leaving expelled people unprotected.
Each day that the Biden administration continues unlawful expulsions is another day it is enforcing racist immigration policies. In recent weeks, Black, brown and Indigenous asylum seekers have watched white Ukrainians exempted from expulsion, a policy that should apply to all fleeing violence, conflict or persecution.
In northern Mexico, I recently spoke with a young asylum seeker who pulled down her mask to show a long scar on her face from being slashed in a knife attack in her home country of Honduras. She said she was targeted for being a lesbian and, while traveling to the United States, kidnapped for ransom near the border, beaten and forced to take off all her clothes as her captors photographed her.
When the woman pleaded with U.S. border officials not to send her to either Honduras or Mexico, she said agents laughed at her, and one said, “I don’t care what’s happening to you.” Then, without screening to see if she faced persecution or torture, as is required by law, they expelled her to Honduras, where she faced death threats from gangs. She has since fled again and is hiding out near the border in hopes that the Biden administration will stay true to its word and restore asylum.
The U.S. government faces an operational challenge to ensure fair, safe and dignified treatment of border crossers. But the administration has already identified and developed some of the tools needed for orderly and humane reception of asylum seekers.
The border response plans released so far include heavy involvement of the Department of Health and Human Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency and will allow asylum officers to directly adjudicate protection claims.
The U.S. public supports a well-managed border in which there is an orderly and safe process for those seeking asylum. The Biden administration should be saying more about how it will move toward a more fair and dignified system that protects families, children, adults and vulnerable groups including LGBTQ+ people from harm.
Conversely, backtracking on its commitment would align the administration with politicians and groups playing politics with migrants’ lives, entrenching racial discrimination and amplifying the xenophobic fearmongering.