By Iván Espinoza-Madrigal and Silvana Gómez
As we enter the third year of pandemic life, it is all too easy to forget about the other predicament at our doorsteps: the humanitarian crisis in the U.S.-Mexico border. It is imperative that we avoid getting desensitized to the plight of asylum seekers who are fleeing violence, particularly as misguided immigration policies exacerbate the border crisis. The Biden Administration must recommit to restoring access to asylum and humanitarian protection at the border. It must also champion comprehensive immigration reform.
Since President Biden’s inauguration, progressive voters and advocates have been waiting for the administration to distinguish itself from draconian Trump-era policies, such as the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols,” which directs people to “remain in Mexico” as they wait for their immigration hearings. Admittedly, the federal government sought to curtail this policy as a federal judge in Texas ordered its reinstatement. But the Biden Administration is now poised to expand its scope and scale. This federal action feels eerily familiar—and frightening.
Under President Trump, the “remain in Mexico” policy confined Spanish-speaking asylum seekers in Mexico, where they were forced to wait for months on end as their cases made their way slowly through the byzantine immigration maze. Now, under Biden, this cruelty will likely have broader application, forcing all asylum seekers from the Western Hemisphere to stay in Mexico awaiting immigration proceedings. By spreading and intensifying the agony, uncertainty, and fear that immigrants face at the border, this administration is following in Trump’s footsteps. This unwarranted expansion calls into question President Biden’s commitment to fixing our broken immigration system.
Policies designed to discourage and penalize asylum seekers and refugees are unlawful and unconscionable. Many people cannot remain in Mexico safely. Immigrants are being re-traumatized and re-victimized as they are exposed to brutal and life-threatening conditions. At Lawyers for Civil Rights, we saw this firsthand on a fact-finding mission to border communities in the United States (Arizona and California) and Mexico (Sonora). We observed unspeakable violence: families and infants struggling without food or shelter; pregnant women and children denied access to medical care in U.S. custody; and people infected with COVID-19 in American immigration detention facilities at the border. We saw the emergence of makeshift camps and communities where an entire generation of children in limbo are condemned to live in war zone conditions. This suffering is produced by the systemic flaws and structural failure of our immigration system.
Recent developments surrounding the “remain in Mexico” policy are part-and-parcel of a broader failure to meaningfully address persistent immigration problems. Relatedly, the Biden Administration’s enforcement of Title 42 represents another unfulfilled promise. Under Title 42, people requesting immigration protection —including those fleeing persecution and torture— are immediately expelled back to their home country. This insurmountable barrier eviscerates a fundamental right: the ability to seek asylum in the United States. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump Administration invoked Title 42 to deny refugees entry into the country based on so-called “public health” measures. Title 42 is unsupported by medical authorities. Despite having denounced Title 42 while on the campaign trail, President Biden continues enforcing this reprehensible practice of turning back asylum-seekers at the border. The Biden Administration’s unwillingness to shift our immigration policies to reflect evolving medical and public health information about COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic is exacerbating a humanitarian and public health crisis, compounding the effects of illness and violence in border communities.
Stepping away from the border, thousands of people with humanitarian protection and relief —such as DACA and TPS— are still reeling from unrelenting federal attacks under the Trump Administration. Undocumented people remain even more vulnerable. Biden’s campaign promise to create a path to citizenship has yet to materialize, compromising the future of 11 million undocumented people already living in the United States. For all these people, legal vulnerability remains a live issue. They survive despite the constant threat of immigration enforcement and deportation. Each passing day brings growing frustration and disappointment.
An unrelenting public health crisis is compounding and aggravating the dangerous consequences of failing to address the immigration crisis—from “remain in Mexico” and Title 42 to comprehensive immigration reform. The recent emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant suggests that we will likely live with the virus for the foreseeable future, even as we expand testing, accelerate vaccination, and reinforce public health protocols. The emergence of life-threatening variants make precarious, overcrowded, and volatile border conditions even more alarming.
Fortunately, misery and suffering are avoidable. There are readily available solutions for the calamity created by the converging humanitarian and public health crises, but our federal government must find the courage to implement them. The Biden Administration must act now with a renewed sense of urgency to provide immigration relief to people arriving at the border and those who are already living in our communities. The federal government should dismantle the “remain in Mexico” policy while simultaneously ending its reliance on Title 42. This will help to once again restore access to asylum and humanitarian protection at the border. The federal government must also recommit to providing consistent, reliable, and universal access to COVID-19 testing and care, including vaccination, for anyone in immigration custody. Action is critical because lives are at stake. On a parallel track, we need to champion comprehensive immigration reform. In the new year, the Biden Administration’s resolution must be unequivocal: recommitting to a progressive immigration agenda.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal (@IvanEspinozaESQ) is the Executive Director of the Lawyers for Civil Rights, the organization that filed the first lawsuits in the country against the Trump Administration to protect sanctuary cities; to save humanitarian protections on behalf of Honduran, Salvadoran, and Liberian immigrants; and to block immigration arrests in courthouses.
Silvana Gómez is Lawyers for Civil Rights’ Community Outreach and Engagement Paralegal in 2021. In this role. A first-generation college student, Silvana graduated from Harvard University in 2021 with a degree in Psychology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality.