Why is the Biden administration turning its back on asylum seekers?
President Biden took office with the promise to “listen to the science” and adopt evidence-based pandemic policies. He also pledged to restore the United States’s moral leadership by building our asylum system back better.
Yet after taking some laudable first steps to restore access to asylum, the Biden administration has fully embraced a Trump-era policy that exposes refugees to grave dangers, while exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.
Known as “Title 42,” the policy exploits an obscure public health law to close our borders to people seeking asylum. The Trump administration introduced Title 42 in 2020, purportedly to curb the spread of COVID-19. Under Title 42, people who ask for asylum at the border are denied the opportunity to seek safety. They are instead summarily “expelled” by U.S. officials to Mexico, or to the very countries they’ve fled.
We have seen the tragic results. Human rights investigators have documented more than 6,300 kidnappings, rapes and other violent assaults against people expelled to Mexico during the first seven months of the Biden administration. Others have been placed on “death flights” to countries in violent turmoil, such as Haiti. Families with infants, pregnant women, survivors of severe torture — none have been spared.
When questioned about their decision to continue – and even escalate – expulsions of asylum seekers, administration officials echo their predecessors, claiming the policy is a pandemic necessity.
But public health and epidemiological experts have seen through this justification since day one. In fact, the Trump White House imposed Title 42 over objections from top doctors within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “It’s to keep Hispanics out of the country. And it’s wrong,” lamented Dr. Martin Cetron, the agency’s director of global migration and quarantine.
In fact, Stephen Miller, Trump’s chief immigration adviser, floated the idea of invoking public health authority to close the border long before COVID-19 entered the picture.
And let’s be clear: There is no coherent public health rationale for singling out people seeking safety. While Title 42 has completely shut the door on asylum seekers, our government has allowed tens of millions of other travelers, including tourists, to cross the U.S.-Mexico border freely during the pandemic, with no testing or quarantine requirements.
Public health experts have implored the administration to see reason and stop the expulsions. They have even provided a detailed roadmap for the administration to safely process people arriving at the border while ensuring the health of U.S. officials, asylum seekers and the communities that receive them. We have robust mitigation measures at our disposal, including highly effective and widely available vaccines and testing.
The obstacles to ending Title 42 are about politics, not public health. With the emergence of the delta variant and surging COVID-19 cases, particularly in states with low vaccination rates, anti-immigrant politicians and pundits have been quick to point the finger at people seeking asylum and the community groups that welcome them. Politicians notorious for rejecting evidence-based COVID-19 measures for their own constituents have been among the worst culprits, as though eager to deflect blame for their actions.
The epidemiological data belie their fear-mongering. There is no evidence that asylum seekers are driving current COVID-19 surges, or the spread of the delta variant. Yet the Biden administration has now extended Title 42 indefinitely, citing “emerging variants” as justification.
With no end to the policy in sight, public health experts are again raising the alarm. Former CDC officials are speaking out, as are courageous health professionals who continue to put their lives on the line to help those our government has expelled to some of the most dangerous regions in Mexico. In a rare public rebuke, the UN Refugee Agency has appealed to the administration to end Title 42.
Policies and practices President Biden denounced on the campaign trail are now becoming his legacy. But it’s not too late to change course. The Biden administration can choose to stop playing politics with people’s lives and end Title 42 along with all other policies that endanger those seeking asylum.
The U.S. has ample resources and public health know-how to safely welcome people escaping persecution with dignity. The president and his administration need to summon the moral courage to make that a reality.
Coleen Kivlahan is a physician and Chair of the University of California, San Francisco Health and Human Rights Initiative. She performs asylum evaluations and expert documentation of human rights violations in cases of torture in conflict areas across the world. Kate Jastram is director of policy and advocacy at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, which is co-counsel in Huisha-Huisha v. Mayorkas, a class action suit challenging the application of Title 42 to families. She has served as a legal advisor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and teaches refugee law and international law at Berkeley Law.