As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues and a renewed sense of normalcy is beginning to be restored in many places in the United States, a human rights crisis remains at the U.S. southern border: hundreds of thousands of people fleeing persecution in their home countries are being turned away without being allowed their legal right to seek asylum.
This high volume of expulsions is due to a Trump-era order based on U.S. Code Title 42, which uses public health grounds to authorize the U.S. government to immediately turn away and expel people seeking asylum at the border. In March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration imposed the Title 42 order as a way to deter immigration into the United States, despite objections from senior officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and criticism from medical experts.
“Title 42 was a public health law – it was never meant to authorize expulsions.”Lee Gelernt
Despite assumptions that the Biden Administration would restore asylum at the border and cease to violate the human rights of people seeking refuge, the Title 42 expulsion order continues. To date, only an exemption for unaccompanied children, and a few other vulnerable groups, has been made. Between March 2020 and January 2021, more than 500,000 refugees and asylum seekers were expelled from the United States without access to due process, including more than 18,000 unaccompanied minors as young as four years of age. Meanwhile, the United States remains open to other international travelers.
The impact of the Title 42 order was the subject of an expert discussion in Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) webinar series on the health and human rights dimensions of COVID-19. The discussion was moderated by Amy Cohen, MD, a mental health and child welfare consultant to attorneys monitoring detention facilities, executive director of Every Last One, and member of PHR’s Asylum Network. Panelists included: Cynthia Pompa, PHR’s Asylum Program officer; Dr. Hannah Janeway, International and Domestic Health Equity and Leadership Fellow at the University of California, founder and co-director of Refugee Health Alliance, and an attending physician at UCLA-Olive View Medical Center and White Memorial Medical Center; Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project and Linda Rivas, JD, executive director and managing attorney of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.
Watch the discussion here:
Asylum-Seekers Impacted by Inhumane Border Practices
During the webinar, panelists reflected on the health consequences and human rights implications of the Title 42 order, the Biden administration’s lack of action to repeal it, and steps necessary to protect refugees and asylum seekers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Title 42 was a public health law – it was never meant to authorize expulsions,” said ACLU civil rights attorney Lee Gelernt, pointing out that the policy violates international and U.S. law. “It has never in its history throughout the worst pandemics ever been used to send people back…. Even if it could somehow be construed to authorize deportation, it cannot override asylum laws.”
In many instances…asylum seekers and their families who are being expelled from the United States are lied to about their whereabouts and suddenly find themselves being forced back over the international bridge into Mexican border towns, leaving them even more vulnerable and exposed to violence.
Panelists addressed the harm of turning people back from the border, citing the harrowing experiences that drive people and families to seek refuge in the United States in the first place. Many of these cases have been extensively documented by PHR, including the stories of individuals fleeing gang and domestic violence.
“The stories that I heard in 2019 are the same that I hear today,” said PHR Asylum Program officer Cynthia Pompa. She described what she has heard throughout the years documenting human rights abuses among asylum seekers, “‘I’ve been persecuted for being a trans person,’ or ‘for being a woman’; ‘my child was being harassed daily if they didn’t join a gang’ or ‘the gang demanded money regularly or they would kill my family.’”
The panel also emphasized the inhumane and deceptive tactics being used by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, including Border Patrol. In many instances, for example, asylum seekers and their families who are being expelled from the United States are lied to about their whereabouts and suddenly find themselves being forced back over the international bridge into Mexican border towns, leaving them even more vulnerable and exposed to violence.
Despite widespread acknowledgement from civil society and public health officials that the Trump administration was using specious public health arguments cloaked in Title 42 as a way to close the border to asylum seekers, the Biden administration did not make its repeal an early priority.
“We’re still seeing a lot of cruelty. On the ground, by DHS [Department of Homeland Security] – we’re seeing these families essentially being lied to,” said Linda Riyas. “It almost feels like the Border Patrol didn’t throw away their script from MPP.” Implemented by the Trump administration in 2019, the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, forced asylum seekers to wait in dangerous Mexican border towns while their cases were pending review in U.S. immigration courts. Not only was this legislation cruel, but it was also in violation of U.S. and international law. MPP was terminated on June 1, 2021, following an executive order by President Biden.
However, despite widespread acknowledgement from civil society and public health officials that the Trump administration was using specious public health arguments cloaked in Title 42 as a way to close the border to asylum seekers, the Biden administration did not make its repeal an early priority. Due to public pressure and litigation efforts, the federal government has indicated a willingness to review this policy but has not provided details.
PHR has been working in partnership with a broad coalition that is actively campaigning to repeal the Title 42 expulsion policy, elevating the voices of those impacted and pushing for humane asylum laws to be restored. Please, join us today to demand an immediate end to Title 42 border expulsions and protect the right to seek asylum at the U.S. border. As the United States continues to reopen after the pandemic, it is imperative that the Title 42 expulsion order be seen for what it is: a cruel and illegal measure using public health grounds to further harsh Trump-era immigration policies.