Migrants were denied the right to seek asylum in the U.S. during the pandemic. Many hoped conditions would improve when Title 42, the act that barred them, lapsed in May. Instead, President Biden, who campaigned on the promise to end the “cruelty at the border,” enacted stricter regulations. Those seeking safety and a chance at a better future grew more desperate.
What is Title 42? Part of the 1944 U.S. Public Health Code, it grants emergency powers to rapidly expel foreigners for fear of spreading contagion. In 2020, President Trump invoked it, claiming the need to stop the spread of Covid. However, from the get-go, it was a tool applied in a discriminatory manner to stop asylum seekers from the Southern Hemisphere.
Human rights watchers expected that Biden would rescind the act. Instead, he used it for over a year. Then, a court challenge by Republicans kept it in place for another year. It finally lapsed in May 2023.
The National Immigrant Justice Center calls Title 42 an asylum ban, which is a violation of international law. Before the pandemic, most encounters with the Border Patrol led to detention in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities or jails where immigrants awaited a decision on their fate. But invoking these emergency powers changed that. Over 1.7 million people were apprehended and expelled at the southern border with no due process — most within 15 minutes of crossing into the U.S. They were sent either to Mexico, where they faced violence, bigotry, and the threat of human trafficking, or back to the peril of their home countries.
These actions were abusive and discriminatory. While some were allowed into the U.S. when pandemic restrictions waned, most at the U.S.-Mexico border were not. Under Biden, over 18,000 Haitians, most of African descent, were singled out to be returned to horrific violence and poverty in their homeland.
Ironically, Title 42 increased the spread of Covid in other lands as migrants awaiting deportation caught the virus in cramped air and ground transportation holding areas as they waited to be sent to various countries.
Biden’s new plan. Right-wingers and politicians of all stripes predicted a surge of migrants when Title 42 lapsed. But this ballyhoo was simply fear-mongering to justify stricter rules. The day after it ended, Biden instituted the most restrictive border control measures to date, which immigrant advocates call the “asylum transit ban.”
U.S. law grants asylum seekers the right to ask for protection at a port of entry or once in the country. But now, Biden requires émigrés to use new “legal pathways” or face severe consequences.
The preferred legal pathway is for refugees to apply from their home country — the danger zone they are trying to escape. Those who make the dangerous journey without an application must make an appointment for an interview on a smartphone app before approaching the border. Many don’t have cellphones or lack the tech knowledge needed. Plus, the app is notoriously plagued with glitches. Some have tried for six months to make an appointment.
Those desperate enough to cross the border without permission are considered ineligible for sanctuary and barred from re-entry for 5 years, unless they prove they have been denied asylum in a country they passed through to get to Mexico. This disqualifies most. Under Title 42 border-crossers were expelled immediately and faced no such penalty.
Afraid to cross the border and unable to secure an interview, masses of refugees are stuck in hazardous tent camps in Mexico.
When expelling people, too often the border patrol dumps them in remote areas of Mexico without their belongings, identification or anything but the clothes on their backs. Despite the administration’s denial of racism, the vast majority of those kicked out have been people of color from the Caribbean and Latin America.
Broken promises. Climate change, war, poverty, and violence are the forces compelling the wretchedly poor northward. Given that the U.S. government is complicit in creating many of these conditions, activists here bear a responsibility to mobilize around the traditional socialist demand for an open border.
Despite pledges to fix a broken system, president after president, from both sides of the aisle, pander to racist xenophobia and enact policies geared to keep away the poorest and most desperate, usually people of color.
A humane immigration system would grant every migrant respect. Those fleeing repression would be given immediate haven and the right to apply for citizenship. The massive budget that funds the cruel border-industrial complex should be used to provide housing, education, healthcare, jobs and support for refugees. With today’s employee shortage, immigrants are a treasure. They should be welcomed with open arms and well-compensated jobs without fear of deportation.