Biden administration must withdraw proposed asylum rule

The sweeping rule would disqualify most asylum seekers who pass through another country en route to the US southern border.

MSF supports shelters in Mexico City

Mexico 2020 © Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/MSF

NEW YORK, MARCH 24, 2023—A proposed rule by the Biden administration designed to curb access to asylum along the southern border of the United States will trap vulnerable people in insecure cities in Mexico and put them in great danger, said Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today. In its official submission as part of a 30-day public comment period for the proposed rule, the international medical humanitarian organization described how this new rule would further threaten the health and safety of its patients and thousands of people trying to reach safety.

“Gutting asylum protections in the US will hurt vulnerable people who have survived extreme violence and persecution, and will put their lives at risk,” said Avril Benoît, executive director of MSF-USA. “This move is a total betrayal of President Biden’s promises to build a safe and humane migration system and mirrors the most cruel policies imposed by the Trump administration. We urge the Biden administration to withdraw this proposed rule and focus on restoring full access to asylum at ports of entry, in line with US law and international obligations.”

The sweeping rule change would disqualify most asylum seekers who pass through another country en route to the US southern border if they enter the US without authorization. All asylum processing at the US southern border would be funneled through CBP One—a notoriously flawed smartphone app. This process can be difficult for people who struggle with language barriers, illiteracy, or issues accessing or using technology.

MSF has provided physical and mental health care to asylum seekers and migrants in Mexico and across the region since 2012. In 2022 alone, the organization provided close to 45,000 primary health consultations in Mexico, including to migrants and refugees suffering from illness induced or aggravated by conditions they faced in transit or while stranded in Mexico. Last year MSF provided more than 6,000 mental health consultations to migrants and refugees suffering from mental distress caused mainly by the violence, loss, and uncertainty they experienced in their home countries and along the migration route.

This new rule is part of a series of policies imposed by the Biden administration that harm the physical and mental health of migrants and deepen an already acute humanitarian crisis in the region.

“Based on our experience caring for migrants and refugees and hearing their stories, we know that these harsh migration measures don’t work,” said Benoît. “The vast majority of people we’ve met along the migration routes through Central America and Mexico are escaping extreme violence. For many of them, going back home is not an option, so they weigh terrible risks in the hope of eventually finding safety. Biden is doubling down on the discredited deterrence policies of his predecessor. The Biden legacy will be that more vulnerable people seeking protection in the US are shut out of this country and left exposed to danger.”

The proposed rule violates the pledges made by President Biden in his Executive Order issued in February 2021 to “restore and strengthen our asylum system, which has been badly damaged by policies enacted over the last four years that contravened our values and caused needless human suffering.” In fact, the rule change would specifically restrict access to asylum for most people seeking entry along the US southern border without authorization—and therefore have disproportionate impacts on brown, black, and indigenous people who come from or are transiting through Central America and Mexico.

The towns along Mexico's northern border are not equipped to provide even the most basic services to asylum seekers and migrants stranded there as a result of harsh US restrictions, said MSF. The number of migrants concentrated in these areas is likely to grow if the proposed rule comes into effect, placing further strains on local capacity. Health care, shelter, water and sanitation services, food, and education are all lacking for migrant communities.

“Over the last several years, MSF has had to expand beyond our regular medical projects due to urgent needs in these areas,” said Benoît. “Blocking migrants along the US-Mexico border and in other areas will place even more strain on shelters and communities that are already overwhelmed.”

The proposed rule would push refugees to seek asylum in transit countries where conditions are unsafe and there is limited access to protection, said MSF. The text claims that there is “increased access to protection” in other countries across the region.

“The Biden administration seems to be ignoring the severity of the violence and abuse that people are exposed to in some of these transit countries,” said Benoît. “We work along the migration routes in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and Peru. We have documented the extreme dangers and the lack of access to health care in many of these locations. It’s just not true to say that this new process for seeking asylum will be safer or more humane. We urge the Biden administration to withdraw this rule in its entirety, move away from harmful deterrence policies, and deploy the resources needed to rebuild a safe and humane asylum processing system.”