Today the US government will end the federal Public Health Emergency for COVID-19, which will also signal the end of Title 42, a public health order used to shut down asylum at the US southern border for more than three years. Invoked by the Trump administration in 2020 and repeatedly extended and expanded by the Biden administration, Title 42 was used to authorize more than 2.8 million expulsions from the US to cities along the US-Mexico border and other countries in the region, including Haiti.
Title 42 caused a humanitarian catastrophe for migrants seeking safety and well-being in the US. Thousands of people were abandoned with inadequate access to shelter and basic services and forced to live under the constant threat of violence in cities that do not have the security or resources to meet the massive needs.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams in northern Mexico—including in Reynosa, Matamoros, Piedras Negras, and Ciudad Acuña—and along the migration route in Central America, have witnessed how this policy has impacted people seeking safety.
"It’s great news that Title 42 will finally end,” said Adriana Palomares, MSF head of mission in Mexico and Central America. “We were hoping that processes to welcome those seeking protection would be restored with the end of Title 42. Unfortunately, the Biden administration appears focused on erecting new barriers to accessing asylum, including through [new asylum restrictions] that will bar many from accessing the protection they desperately need. We know that policies of deterrence don’t work, and all this will do is expose more people to violence and danger.”
In addition to a slew of new immigration policies recently rolled out by the Biden administration, once Title 42 expires, the US government will return to processing migrants under existing US immigration law, known as Title 8. Under Title 8, migrants can face a fine or penalty before being deported. If caught trying to re-enter the US, they can face criminal charges and be banned from entering the US or seeking asylum for five to 20 years.
“The Biden administration promised to build a safe, fair, and humane immigration system,” said Palomares. “Instead, it has continued or expanded ways to keep people from seeking asylum at the US southern border. For many of the patients we treat along the migration route, returning home is not an option. Pushing migrants back, detaining them, abandoning them, or purposefully making the process so difficult that they just give up their quest to reach the United States, is cruel policy that only endangers people.”
Currently, for thousands of people who are at the northern border of Mexico, the only way to access asylum is through a digital phone application known as CBP One. The requirement that people use a phone application to schedule port of entry appointments creates a massive barrier for asylum seekers who are often stranded for months in terrible conditions, without the proper electricity and internet access needed to schedule these appointments through a cell phone.
Testimonies gathered by MSF teams show that CBP One is not running correctly on some phones, there are very few appointments released each day, and sometimes the only appointments available are in cities thousands of miles away. Some asylum seekers had to buy a new phone with a better camera because the app requested a picture of the applicant. Others didn’t have access to Wi-Fi or even a phone or could not complete the form as they did not read English or Spanish.
Magaly Margarita, a 29-year-old Venezuelan woman who has been in Matamoros for four months, has faced obstacles with CPB One. She lives with her two daughters—ages three and five—in a small tent inside the migrant camp on the banks of the Rio Grande. Margarita made an appointment through CBP One for February 28, but she was turned away by immigration officials because she had not registered her daughters. Since then, she has not been able to make a new appointment, and a few days ago her cell phone stopped working.
"I haven't been able to log in to the application for five days now,” said Margarita. “I used to log in every day. I got an error message that there was no space for the three of us, that there is no time, that there is no date. That is a very difficult process." While she waits, Margarita will continue selling lollipops and candy on the streets of Matamoros to buy food for her and her daughters.
"What does the future look like for people like Margarita waiting at the northern border of Mexico or at some point along the migratory route in the region?" said Palomares. "The tightening of measures against migrants and the lack of efficient legal options to reach the United States has a serious impact on the health of migrants. It is urgent that a dignified and safe asylum system be reestablished for all."