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The Biden Administration Must Act Now to Protect the Health and Human Rights of U.S. Asylum Seekers: PHR

In response to the immigration executive orders signed by President Biden today, the following statement is attributable to Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director at Physicians for Human Rights and professor of internal medicine and public health at University of Michigan:

“We welcome the Biden administration’s shift in tone and initial steps today to roll back some of the Trump administration’s asylum policies, which ripped toddlers from parents’ arms, created refugee camps feet from the U.S.-Mexico border, and eviscerated the longstanding U.S. asylum system.

The way the United States treats asylum seekers – in immigration detention facilities, at the U.S.-Mexico border, in immigration courts, on deportation flights – is nothing short of a human rights and health crisis. The new administration is right to be deliberative and consultative as it confronts the ongoing catastrophes fueled by Trump administration asylum policies and practices. But with each passing day that the United States continues to expel asylum seekers, to expose them to high rates of COVID-19 in detention facilities, or to fail to provide reparations for the trauma the U.S. government inflicted on separated families, asylum seekers continue to have their human rights violated. The Biden administration should act immediately to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), rescind the Title 42 travel ban expelling asylum seekers, and release people from immigration detention to community-based alternatives.

As an organization that has documented the health and human rights harms of the family separation policy and other punitive, deterrence-based border policies for years, we are heartened by the formation of an interagency task force to reunite families separated by the previous administration. While its work will no doubt face numerous logistical challenges, we urge it to act quickly to reunite families in the United States and to provide reparations, mental health support, and pathways to citizenship to all children and parents who endured the family separation policy. Anything less than the full acknowledgement of and redress for the torture and enforced disappearances inflicted on many families will fail to meet U.S. obligations under domestic and international law and will compound the trauma experienced by these children and parents.

With regard to MPP, also known as “remain in Mexico,” the impact on those stuck in Mexico has been well documented: physical and sexual violence, kidnapping, theft, extortion, and unsanitary conditions in encampments along the border. We continue to call on the administration to immediately parole all people enrolled in MPP into the United States to community settings to undergo their immigration proceedings; ensure adequate resources are provided for surge capacity of trained personnel, such as medical and mental health professionals and child welfare experts, to ensure that immigrants have a safe and humane reception at the U.S. border; and provide appropriate redress to asylum seekers who were subjected to the dangers of MPP. The Title 42 travel ban – the Trump administration’s weaponization of the pandemic to expel asylum seekers under the guise of public health – must also be rescinded now.

We note that the administration has called for the review of many other deeply harmful Trump administration rules on asylum, and we urge the swift rescission of these rules, including those underpinning the Asylum Cooperative Agreements and gutting decades-long asylum protections. We applaud the administration for ceasing implementation of the “Prompt Asylum Case Review” program (PACR) and “Humanitarian Asylum Review Program” (HARP) and urge them to rescind associated rules and policies.

As opposed to the previous administration – which routinely spurned consultation with medical, public health, and advocacy organizations – we welcome the administration’s stated commitment to consult with civil society on immigration reforms. We will continue to engage with and to press the administration to forge an asylum system grounded in human rights, due process, and social justice.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.