Too often, our nation has learned who we don’t want to be from the mistakes of our past. Indeed, asylum laws were born of a shameful history — our government’s failure to shelter thousands of Jewish people fleeing state-sponsored persecution by the Nazi regime. In his four years in office, Trump decimated those asylum protections more than any other president before him. President Biden promised to restore a humane approach to asylum and uphold our nation’s promise to allow people fleeing violence and persecution the opportunity to seek safe sanctuary in our country. But one of Trump’s most extreme and restrictive policies remains and it's illegally shutting the United States off from vulnerable migrants fleeing desperate conditions.
Last March, Trump exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to further his anti-immigrant agenda, using Title 42, a public health order, to justify the immediate expulsion of any migrant who approaches the U.S. border. Weaponizing the order in this way runs afoul of both U.S. and international laws that protect refugees and has no basis in science. It has sparked condemnation from immigrant rights organizations, public health and medical experts, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. Yet, nearly seven months into the Biden presidency, the order remains.
"There is no legitimate public health rationale for denying asylum seekers the opportunity to plead their cases, as countless public health officials have pointed out."
Though the Biden administration has made exceptions for unaccompanied minors and a limited number of vulnerable families, in part due to ACLU litigation, single adults and many families continue to be turned away at the border. Many are expelled to Mexico, where they are at risk of further violence and don't have access to proper food, shelter or medical treatment.
The Title 42 order is anything but the humane approach Biden promised. Though the administration claims the order is aimed at protecting people from the threat of COVID-19, there is no legitimate public health rationale for denying asylum seekers the opportunity to plead their cases, as countless public health officials have pointed out.
The order cites “congregate settings” that migrants are typically held in once inside the United States as a justification for suspending their entry, stating that the facilities are not set up for social distancing or to deliver adequate medical care. We agree. These facilities are not designed to care for people in normal times, let alone in times of emergency. That’s why the Biden administration should focus on community-based alternatives to detention, and allow people seeking protection to stay with friends, family, and community members as their immigration cases proceed. Recent research shows that 99% of asylum seekers who were not detained or who were previously released from immigration custody showed up for their hearings in 2019.
"We can uphold our asylum laws and protect the public’s health. And we must."
The federal government is capable of safely welcoming asylum seekers with dignity and adhering to CDC-endorsed best practices during initial processing, including social distancing, masking and testing. The government has already proved capable of this in processing families and other vulnerable migrants who qualify as exceptions for humanitarian reasons under Title 42.
We can uphold our asylum laws and protect the public’s health. And we must. Because denying migrants the legal right to seek asylum and sending them into harm’s way only creates a different kind of a public health crisis. After all, no one can live a life of dignity and health if faced with the continual threat of violence and persecution.
People seeking asylum bring courage, hope and resilience to our country and deserve to be treated with compassion. As a border state, New Mexico has an added responsibility to call out the callous indifference happening in our backyard and to advocate for those who our state could help shelter from violence. There are numerous community-based organizations ready to help. Now, we need our local elected officials to show courage. We ask them to contact us and join us in sending a joint letter to the administration calling for an immediate end to the illegal and inhumane use of Title 42.