Washington, DC – Immigration rights advocates in the United States have called on the Biden administration to provide more information on reported plans to lift a contentious rule along the US-Mexico border that has blocked most people from seeking asylum in the country.
Rights groups on Thursday said they are still waiting for confirmation that the administration will revoke the policy, known as Title 42, by May 23, as several news outlets reported this week. While they welcomed the likely end to Title 42, the groups say they need clarity on whether expulsions would continue during the “phase-out” period.
“One of our key questions is whether or not they will continue to expel people seeking refugee protection during that period … That would be very concerning,” said Eleanor Acer, refugee protection director at Human Rights First, a US-based group.
“We welcome the commitment to end Title 42 order, that’s an important step forward,” Acer told Al Jazeera, “but we also would like to see the restoration of asylum and the upholding of asylum law along the border.”
Lots of questions re reported Title 42 phase out:
➡️When will CBP uphold asylum law at POEs?
➡️What is the plan for long waiting, stranded asylum seekers?
➡️When will the double standards at the border end, so refugee law upheld for Ukrainians & Haitians, Nicaraguans, etc
— Eleanor Acer (@AcereEleanor) March 31, 2022
Former US President Donald Trump first invoked Title 42 in March 2020, citing the need to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the US. Under the order, most asylum seekers apprehended at the US’s southern border are sent back to Mexico, or to their country of origin, within hours, without the chance to file an asylum claim.
Rights groups, the United Nations, and progressive Democratic leaders have blasted the policy as a violation of US and international laws, and an evasion of US responsibility towards people seeking protection in the country.
Despite the criticism, President Joe Biden, who took office in January of last year, has kept the order in place, and according to official data, more than 1.7 million Title 42 expulsions have been carried out since 2020.
But Biden’s administration faces increased pressure to end the border restriction as most vaccine and mask mandates have ended in much of the US, and as more Americans are vaccinated and infections rates are declining.
“It has become increasingly untenable in a world of widespread vaccinations and easy access to COVID tests to claim that we continue to need to expel asylum seekers to stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Council.
“Title 42 has been an utter failure by all measures,” Reichlin-Melnick told Al Jazeera. “It hasn’t protected the public’s health, it has actively harmed asylum seekers and it has failed to limit the number of people coming to the border.”
Source of confusion
Rights groups say Title 42 also has been a source of confusion at the border, with asylum seekers subjected to the policy being expelled without any official procedure or documentation, spurring repeat crossings.
They also say it has inflicted massive human rights abuses on people seeking refuge. Human Rights First has documented nearly 10,000 reports of kidnapping, torture, rape, and other violent attacks against people sent to Mexico under Title 42 from the start of last year through March 15.
The rule came into sharp focus in September last year, when more than 15,000 Haitians, among them many children, camped under a bridge in southern Texas hoping to claim asylum. Haiti has been reeling from rising gang violence and political instability, but the US quickly emptied the camp and expelled the vast majority of people under Title 42.
Guerline Josef, co-founder and executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, a US-based support and advocacy group, said approximately 21,000 Haitians were flown back to Haiti under Title 42 since the Biden administration took office.
But many other Haitian asylum seekers have been waiting for months or even years in shelters and migrant camps in Mexico, hoping for a chance to apply for asylum in the US. Josef told Al Jazeera that she worries about what will happen to them should the border reopen.
“There is a large number of Haitians who were forced back to Mexico. The majority of those people are still waiting at the US-Mexico border to have access to asylum,” Josef said. “We are extremely worried as to what that will look like for Haitians and other Black migrants.”
What is the plan?
On Wednesday, after news agencies and local news outlets reported that the US planned to lift Title 42 in May, Biden told reporters that his administration would make a decision on the rule “soon”.
Hours later, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a fact sheet detailing its preparations for a potential increase in asylum seekers arriving at the border, which included deploying more personnel and expediting asylum claims.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), upon whose advice Title 42 has been invoked, also is expected to issue a decision this week on whether or not to extend the order.
Acer at Human Rights First said more than two years of Title 42 has been “a humanitarian travesty” that has led to human rights abuses, spurred disorder at the US-Mexico border, and tarnished the standing of the Biden administration.
While she is waiting to get more information about Washington’s plan should the policy be rescinded, Acer told Al Jazeera it is critical for the Biden administration to make clear that it intends to put in place an asylum system that meets international norms and requirements.
“The most important thing for the administration to do is to be clear that the United States has the capacity to effectively manage its borders and welcome people who are seeking refugee protection.”