A Ukrainian mother and her three children have been allowed into the United States after being turned back to Mexico under a widely criticised pandemic measure that bars entry to most asylum seekers who arrive at the US border, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) confirmed.
The San Diego Union-Tribune first reported late on Wednesday that the 34-year-old woman and her children were turned away at the US southern border under Title 42, a contentious policy first invoked by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 due to the coronavirus.
In a statement to Al Jazeera late on Thursday, the Homeland Security Department said the Ukrainian family was allowed into the country after a review of the facts of their case. “DHS is continuing to exempt particularly vulnerable individuals from Title 42 on a case by case basis,” it said.
More than 1.6 million Title 42 expulsions have been carried out to date, according to US government data. Rights groups have repeatedly denounced the policy as a violation of international law that puts already vulnerable people at risk of violence, rape, extortion and other threats in Mexico or other countries they are sent.
“I’m not asking for anything from the United States, just to be let in,” the Ukrainian woman, who used the name Sofia, told the Union-Tribune after being turned away. “All we need is to be safe. All we want is to keep our lives safe.”
‘Terrible and inhumane’
The case comes as Russia’s bombardment of Ukrainian cities intensifies and Russian troops advance towards the capital, Kyiv. The conflict has forced more than 2.5 million people to flee the country, according to the United Nations, with most refugees heading to neighbouring nations in Europe.
The Associated Press news agency reported that the woman and her children left Ukraine on February 27, just days after Russia launched its all-out invasion, going first to Moldova and Romania before arriving in Mexico this week. The family was seeking to join relatives in the US, both AP and the Union-Tribune said.
Rights groups have urged Biden to do more to help guarantee safe passage to all those seeking to leave, as well as protect Ukrainians already in the US. Last week, the US administration announced it would extend what’s known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Ukrainians in the country, saying the conflict made it unsafe for them to return to Ukraine.
While refugee advocates and US legislators welcomed that decision, some also called on Biden to take similarly swift action to protect citizens of countries also experiencing armed conflict or struggling in the aftermath of environmental disasters, such as Cameroon, Guatemala and Honduras.
Equally, calls for Biden to end the use of Title 42 for all asylum seekers arriving at the US’s borders are growing louder, especially as coronavirus restrictions are lifted across the US amid declining infection rates.
The administration has justified its continued use of the policy by saying Title 42 is a public health order – not an immigration directive – meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “It’s a public health imperative for the benefit of migrants, the communities they enter and our workforce to continue to apply Title 42 and that is the decision of the [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in late January, as reported by local media. “It’s not our decision.”
But even top lawmakers from Biden’s own Democratic Party are now speaking out. During a virtual news conference on Thursday alongside migration rights advocates, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer urged the president to end what he described as a “terrible and inhumane” policy.
“Title 42 has been nothing short of disastrous for … families seeking asylum from the horrors in their home countries,” Schumer told reporters. “Now, more than a year since the Biden administration took office, it’s unacceptable that this policy continues to be used indiscriminately to remove migrants with valid refugee claims from our southern border.”
Citing two officials familiar with the matter, Reuters said this week that the Biden administration is leaning towards ending Title 42. The news agency reported that another official said a decision could come within weeks, as the policy was being “actively debated”.
Increase in refugee arrivals
Erika Pinheiro, policy and litigation director at Al Otro Lado, a legal support group for refugees and migrants, tweeted about the Ukrainian woman and her children – aged 14, 12 and six – being turned away at the San Ysidro port of entry between California and Mexico this week.
“This woman does not have a phone and cannot safely stay in Tijuana. How can the US say it supports Ukraine while turning away its refugees from our borders?” she wrote on Twitter on Wednesday evening.
Pinheiro, who arrived at the border crossing as the situation unfolded, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview the next day that increasing numbers of Ukrainian and Russian nationals have tried to seek asylum in the US through Mexico during the past year.
“The political crisis there didn’t start with the bombs, it started before that. So there’s been an increase in refugee flows through Mexico. There has been an increase in Russian, Ukrainian and other Eastern European asylum seekers,” Pinheiro said.
HAPPENING NOW: @CBP is turning away a Ukrainian woman and her minor children at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. This woman does not have a phone and cannot safely stay in Tijuana. How can the US say it supports Ukraine while turning away its refugees from our borders?
— Erika Pinheiro (@eeerox) March 10, 2022
Pinheiro added that as COVID-19 curbs are being lifted across the US, the Biden administration has no valid argument for still using Title 42. The policy was always “a political decision”, she said, that has resulted in death and suffering for more than one million people.
“Even the states that had the strictest COVID restrictions are lifting them,” Pinheiro said. “If all of that’s happening and we still have the border closed to refugees, even those who are vaccinated and COVID tested, it really just doesn’t make any sense.”
Recent court decisions
That was echoed by Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance advocacy group.
She said more than 20,000 people – including pregnant women and infants – had been sent back to Haiti as a result of the policy, despite the Caribbean nation’s struggle with widespread violence and poverty, and a deep-rooted political crisis.
“We are asking to revoke Title 42 and provide support and welcome people, whether they are coming from Ukraine, Haiti, Cameroon, Central America,” Jozef said during Thursday’s news conference.
Meanwhile, separate US courts issued vastly different rulings this month on the ways in which the Biden administration can apply Title 42 going forward.
A US appeals court last week said the Biden administration could continue to expel asylum seekers under Title 42, but should not send them “to places where they will be persecuted or tortured”. However, a federal judge in Texas ruled the administration could not exempt unaccompanied minors from the policy.
Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who is involved in legal challenges to the policy, said, “The way the administration could deal with both cases is simply by ending Title 42.” He added, “The writing is on the wall about the legality of Title 42 at this point.”