Open letter to the Biden administration on migration

Migration and deportation in Reynosa and Matamoros

Mexico 2021 © MSF/Clémentine Faget

Today marks President Biden’s one hundredth day in office. Despite promises to uphold the right to asylum and review and rescind harmful Trump-era policies, the Biden administration has continued to implement policies that restrict access to asylum and put migrants and asylum seekers in harm’s way.  

For nearly a decade, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has provided medical and mental health care to thousands of migrants and asylum seekers along the migration route through Mexico. Our teams have directly witnessed the harm these policies cause.

In this open letter, MSF-USA executive director, Avril Benoît, urges President Biden and his administration to take immediate measures to bring its policy on migration in line with domestic and international law and with its own stated commitments.

April 30, 2021

Hon. Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
President of the United States
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Biden,

Despite its obligations under domestic and international law, the US government persists in implementing policies that are designed to restrict access to asylum. These containment policies—which we hoped would be rapidly rescinded under your leadership—continue to deepen the vulnerability of asylum seekers, exposing them to the risk of violence and exacerbating their needs. 

As an organization that has been providing medical and mental health care to thousands of migrants and asylum seekers along the migration route through Mexico for nearly a decade, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is writing to urge you and your administration to put an immediate end to policies that expose asylum seekers to life-threatening harm and intensify humanitarian needs along the US-Mexico border and beyond. We write to you as the doctors, nurses, and humanitarian workers who care for the women, children, and men that the US has not only refused to help but has forced into harm’s way.

Shortly after your inauguration, MSF commended your stated commitment to uphold the right to asylum and welcomed the first steps you took to address the detrimental structures set up by the Trump administration. We were also heartened by your February 2 Executive Order promising to review and potentially rescind a suite of harmful Trump-era policies, as well as your decision to start phasing out the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).

MSF recognizes the immensity of the challenge of meeting your commitments on migration and asylum, especially given the extent of the damage done by your predecessor. However, one hundred days into your tenure, the picture is remarkably disappointing. Knowing full-well their deleterious consequences, your administration continues to pursue and publicly stand behind policies that are keeping the southern border closed to asylum seekers. Your administration’s ongoing use of the Title 42 authority to block and expel asylum seekers is driving a humanitarian crisis across the border and stands in stark contrast with your declared values and your objective of expanding pathways for protection in the US. Your administration’s outward efforts to manage migration through regional containment and border securitization strategies are extremely worrying and only expose migrants and asylum seekers to further violence and criminalization.

During its four years in office, the Trump administration prioritized dismantling the US asylum system and erecting barriers to discourage as many migrants and asylum seekers as possible from journeying north toward the US border. The policies the previous administration implemented included regulations that eliminated gang and domestic violence as grounds for asylum; rules requiring asylum seekers traveling through a country to first seek protection there before applying for asylum in the US; bilateral agreements with governments in Central America that enabled the deportation of asylum seekers to third countries; and procedures that effectively shut the US border to asylum seekers and enabled their rapid expulsion to Mexico and other countries. Across the region, MSF teams witnessed firsthand the devastating toll of this brutal strategy on the lives and health of people forced to flee violence and life-threatening poverty in Central America, Mexico, and other countries. We urge you to take immediate measures to bring your policy on migration in line with domestic and international law, and with your own commitments.

Rescind the Title 42 expulsion order

We call on you to immediately end the misuse of Title 42 authority to block and expel asylum seekers under the pretense of safeguarding public health. The Title 42 policy has effectively shut the border to asylum seekers, singling them out as vectors of illness and exposing them to potentially deadly risks. Over 600,000 expulsions have been conducted so far under Title 42—nearly a third of them on your watch—largely without the required screening to ensure those being deported will not be returned to potential harm. The Title 42 policy relies on patently false public health arguments. It is a cruel instrumentalization of the COVID-19 pandemic for border management purposes. The lives and wellbeing of thousands of people depend on rescinding this policy.

Restart the processing of asylum seekers at the southern border

The US is capable of simultaneously preserving fundamental protections to asylum seekers while safeguarding public health. In your own words, Mr. President, “there’s no wall high enough to keep any virus out.” That statement applies as much to physical barriers as to policy barriers. Your administration has a range of options at its disposal to process asylum requests safely and humanely at the southern border. We urge you to swiftly restart the process, including at ports of entry, while implementing evidence-based measures to safeguard public health. Your failure to restore asylum processing is keeping thousands of asylum seekers stranded in situations of uncertainty and violence in northern Mexico, pushing families to separate and children to cross alone to reach safety, and driving up repeated and often dangerous crossings between ports of entry.

Rescind other policies and practices harmful to asylum seekers

Furthermore, your administration must, without delay, address other harmful policies and practices that continue to block and punish those seeking protection in the US. These include the so-called “metering” system which limits the ability of asylum seekers to approach ports of entry and deprives them from accessing asylum. Also included is the transit-country asylum ban, which denies asylum to individuals who traveled through a country other than their own before crossing the US-Mexico border, making Central American asylum seekers who traveled through Mexico to reach the US ineligible. Your administration must also immediately address the decisions excluding domestic and gang violence as grounds for asylum.

Build a humane and responsive regional protection system

Recent statements coming out of your administration on border enforcement and the interdiction of migrants traveling north from Central America are extremely worrying. MSF has witnessed time and again how strategies that militarize borders and criminalize migration fail to achieve their objective of discouraging it. Making the journey “more difficult,” as the aim was recently framed by your Press Secretary, will not stop migrants and asylum seekers. It will only drive them to pursue more dangerous routes, exposing them to organized crime and human trafficking along the way. This is not only inhumane, but it turns vulnerable human beings into profit opportunities for criminal entities. Your administration must not resort to tactics that incentivize neighboring governments to crack down on migrants, to push them back, to detain and deport them. The US government must act responsibly and seek not to interdict but to promote the safe movement of those seeking protection through countries in which they may exposed to violence and persecution.  

Your administration has pleaded for patience while it embarks on the colossal task of rebuilding the US asylum system. We believe that your administration is able to fulfil that task rapidly and effectively, with enough political will and the allocation of adequate resources. We ask that you not sacrifice your commitments on asylum at the altar of political expediency.

Respectfully yours,

Avril's signature


Avril Benoît
Executive Director
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) USA

Hon. Kamala Harris
Vice President of the United States

Hon. Antony Blinken
U.S. Department of State

Hon. Alejandro Mayorkas
U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Hon. Xavier Becerra
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH
Director Centers for Disease Control and Prevention