‘Wrong and shameful’: Critics decry extended US COVID refugee ban

The Biden administration has extended Title 42, an order that expels asylum seekers under COVID-19 precautions.

A Border Patrol agent watches as a group of migrants walk across the Rio Grande at the US-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas [File: Eric Gay/The Associated Press]

Refugee and immigration advocates in the United States have slammed the administration of President Joe Biden’s decision to extend a controversial health order that permits officials to expel most asylum seekers crossing the southern border with Mexico under COVID-19 precautions.

The order, which invokes the public health provision Title 42, was initially put in place by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under former President Donald Trump in March of 2020, and has been regularly challenged by immigration and rights groups who have said it is being used politically and violates the rights of individuals to seek asylum in the US.

Those rights groups were quick to condemn the Biden administration’s newest extension of the order on Monday – which included an update that calls for the measure to be reevaluated every 60 days, rather than the previous 30 days.

The extension, they said, conflicts with the president’s promise to champion human rights-leading domestic and foreign policies.

“Biden is failing to deliver on his promise of a humane immigration approach by keeping in place Trump’s Title 42 which unlawfully expels refugees seeking safety in the US without due process,” Cristina Jimenez, founder of the United We Dream immigrant’s rights organisation, wrote on Twitter.

“This is wrong and shameful,” she said.

‘Beyond cruel’

A coalition of rights groups representing families and individuals barred from entering the US had paused their legal challenge to the order, first lodged under Trump, after Biden took office and altered the measure by exempting unaccompanied minors from expulsion.

The most recent extension also formalises a process to grant exceptions to the order for certain migrants undertaking approved testing for COVID-19 in Mexico.

But on Monday, the groups, which include the ACLU, Oxfam, and RAICES, said they had reached “an impasse in negotiations with the Biden administration to end the policy” and that they would move forward with the litigation.

“We took the government to court over Title 42 because the lives of children, entire families, and extremely vulnerable people are on the line,” said Karla Marisol Vargas, senior lawyer of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is among the groups challenging the order.

With the Biden administration facing a surge in border crossings since taking office, critics have accused the federal government of illegally using public health concerns as a cover to stem migration.

“It’s beyond cruel to use an obscure public health rule to turn away families seeking safety without due process and functionally shut down our asylum system — it’s illegal,” Vargas added in a statement. “People have a legal right to seek safety in America and our government has the resources to safely process them into the country to have their cases heard.”

A US official, in a court filing on Monday related to the legal challenge, said that preliminary figures show more than 19,000 unaccompanied children were picked up by US authorities at the southern border in July – the highest monthly total on record.

The number of people travelling in families across the border during July is likely to be about 80,000, the official said. That would be just shy of the all-time high of 88,857 in May 2019 but up from 55,805 in June.

Overall, according to preliminary data, Customs and Border Patrol is likely to have encountered about 210,000 individuals in July, the highest monthly encounter number in 20 years, the official said. Some of those encounters likely relate to people who tried to cross the border more than once.

‘No scientific basis’

David Shahoulian, assistant secretary for border and immigration policy with the US Department for Homeland Security (DHS) who filed the challenge, said Title 42 was necessary to protect federal authorities, migrants and the public amid a surge in cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant.

Shahoulian said the rate of infections among migrants crossing the southern border had “increased significantly in recent weeks”.

The number of infections among US border agents has also begun to rise in recent weeks, despite increased rates of vaccination, he said, resulting in more agents isolating or being hospitalised due to the coronavirus.

He did not provide exact figures of migrants or agents who had tested positive.

Still, many public health experts have challenged the argument that the Title 42 order, which only applies to those entering the country without documentation, is necessary to help curb the spread of COVID-19, saying there is no scientific data to support that rationale and that other measures could be taken to assure safety.

On July 1, four public health experts wrote a letter urging the Biden administration to end the policy, which they said “continues to unethically exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to expel, block, and return to danger asylum seekers and individuals seeking protection at the border”.

“Public health and medical experts have repeatedly called on the CDC to rescind the Title 42 expulsion policy which does not protect public health and was never intended to do so,” they wrote. “Imposing restrictions on entering the United States based on immigration status alone is a discriminatory practice with no scientific basis as a public health measure.”

Source: Al Jazeera