On January 5, 2023, President Biden announced that his administration would expand the harmful Title 42 policy to include Cuban, Haitian, and Nicaraguan nationals. Once again, the Biden Administration has chosen to further entrench Title 42, blocking access to protection for those who need it most while trying to convince us that their aim is to restore asylum at the border. Migrants and asylum seekers from these countries arriving at the southern US border between ports of entry will now be expelled to Mexico without due process, including those fleeing violence and persecution. This decision will undoubtedly lead to more people in need of humanitarian assistance stranded in unsafe and under-resourced communities along the US-Mexico border and further down the migration route.
The parole program announced in conjunction—modeled off existing programs for Ukrainian and Venezuelan nationals—is limited and discriminatory and cannot adequately replace regular asylum processing at the border. Expanding safe pathways for migrants and asylum seekers is crucial, but access to safety should not be contingent on the nationality of those seeking it, their ties to sponsors in the US, their ability to travel by air, or their legal status in a third country.
By Avril Benoît, Executive Director, MSF-USA
The next few weeks will be a major test of the Biden administration’s commitment to building a safe and humane migration system. Will this administration continue to skirt US obligations to protect people seeking asylum along the southern border, or will it finally work toward repairing a broken asylum processing system?
Title 42—the harmful policy that has allowed the US to rapidly expel asylum seekers on the false basis of protecting public health—is scheduled to be terminated by court order on December 21. First invoked in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, both the Trump and Biden administrations have misused this obscure public health order to essentially shut down regular asylum processing at the US southern border. Nearly two and a half million expulsions later, Title 42 has proved to be one of the US government’s most sweeping—and most cruel—anti-asylum policies.
Late Monday evening, the Supreme Court issued an administrative stay that temporarily paused the lifting of Title 42 in response to an application filed by a group of 19 Republican-led states. The future of this policy is now once again in question.
As a medical humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has seen how Title 42 multiplied the risks facing our patients along the migration route through Mexico. Under this policy, the US turned away vulnerable people seeking safety and sent them back into harm’s way, in Mexican border cities without enough shelters or access to basic services, and at risk of extortion, violence, and kidnapping. For years, MSF has worked in shelters and makeshift camps along the US-Mexico border to provide basic health care and mental health support to people on the move. We've seen conditions go from bad to worse with government policies on both sides of the border compounding the crisis conditions faced by migrants and refugees.
As MSF and other public health experts have repeatedly pointed out, this Title 42 policy has no legitimate public health basis. The US Centers for Disease Control attempted to terminate the order in May 2022, however the administration was initially blocked by court order from following through. Even after the Biden administration publicly admitted to the harms perpetuated by Title 42 and pursued efforts to end it, officials made the unconscionable decision to expand the policy even further in October to include Venezuelans.
MSF teams have had to expand operations to meet the growing needs. Thousands of people are living in makeshift camps or sleeping on the streets because shelters are overwhelmed in Mexican towns and cities including Reynosa, Matamoros, and Mexico City. We see mothers and children begging for assistance or relying on charities and local church groups for food, with nowhere to go, and terrified that they will be kidnapped or assaulted.
Since coming into office, the Biden administration has taken some actions to improve the immigration system. These have included significantly reducing the number of unauthorized immigrants vulnerable to arrest, detention, and removal inside the US; the lifting of some barriers to US entry, as well as barriers preventing access to immigration benefits. Where the Biden administration has fallen tremendously short is on its commitments around access to asylum at the US-Mexico border. It has failed to articulate a clear border strategy, often taking contradictory— and largely reactive— positions in response to surges in migration.
Already the final days of Title 42 are being covered in the most sensational ways possible. Images of desperate human beings walking toward the US border in migrant “caravans” are being framed as an invasion. While it’s true that the end of Title 42 will likely result in an influx of asylum seekers in border cities in Mexico and the United States, governments on both sides of the border as well as international agencies have had plenty of time to prepare accordingly. The fact is that the US government has come to rely on a public health order as an immigration management tool. There is a humanitarian crisis at the border that is being intensified by the Biden administration’s ongoing implementation of punitive deterrence policies.
The Biden administration must adequately resource asylum processing at the Mexico-US border to ensure the humane treatment of people seeking safety. When Title 42 finally comes to an end, it must be replaced by policies that uphold the right to seek asylum.
Reports that the Biden administration could soon significantly limit the number of people who can apply for asylum at the southern border and reinstate certain Trump-era immigration policies, are extremely alarming. Policies designed to make the journey “more difficult” are both cruel and counterproductive, and will never stop people fleeing extreme violence and persecution. Such policies tend to drive migration underground, pushing people to pursue more dangerous routes and exposing them to organized crime and human trafficking. MSF teams are responding to the needs as migrants are pushed back and deported. The US government and other governments in the region must act responsibly to promote the safe movement of people seeking protection through countries in which they may be exposed to violence and persecution. The Biden administration must keep its promise to build a safe and humane immigration system.
Our ask is simple. What we need is a surge of humanity. For refugees and migrants in Mexico—and everywhere—to be treated as human beings, with dignity and compassion.
*This article has been updated with additional information.
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