President Biden has implored Americans to heed the guidance of public health experts in order to tamp down the spread of Covid-19. But when it comes to deporting desperate refugees attempting to seek asylum at the Southern border, the president’s administration has relied on a discriminatory Trump-era order predicated on pandemic concerns some of these very same experts say are baseless.
On Sunday, three flights containing over 320 Haitian migrants arrived in Port-au-Prince, part of the Biden administration’s effort to expel the nearly 15,000 migrants who have been camped in the border town of Del Rio, Texas, waiting to seek asylum in the United States. Six more flights are expected to leave for Haiti on Tuesday, and seven are expected to depart daily beginning on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
The law protects the right of refugees to apply for asylum once they are in the United States, but Title 42, a public-health provision the Trump administration implemented in March 2020, allows for their immediate deportation. The provision, reportedly pushed by Trump immigration hawk and virulent racist Stephen Miller, is based on the idea that migrants pose a unique public-health risk as the United States attempts to combat the pandemic.
“It makes no sense from a public health perspective. It makes no sense at all,” says Dr. Ronald Waldman, president of the human rights group Doctors of the World. “The prohibition for crossing the border has been applied selectively to asylum seekers, but students are allowed to cross the border, business people are allowed to cross the border, there’s a lot of people crossing the border. It’s a laughable line of reasoning. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We’re trying to convince people of the importance of public health and to listen to the advice and recommendations of public health authorities. It’s making a mockery of public health.”
“I think many of us were hopeful that with the advent of the Biden administration, some of the most specious and spurious policies like Title 42 [would be revoked],” adds Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director of Physicians for Human Rights. “There has never, ever been any public health basis for singling out asylum-seekers for deportation.”
Biden campaigned on taking a more humane approach to immigration after four years of xenophobia and cruelty. He promised to do away with the Border Wall, admit more refugees, and to not deport any undocumented migrants in his first 100 days in office. But change hasn’t come easy, especially as Biden seeks to foster bipartisanship with a Republican Party that’s frothing at the mouth to keep “illegal immigrants” (also known as “human beings seeking better lives”) out of the United States. This has led advocates to accuse the Biden administration of playing politics with the lives of asylum-seeking refugees. It’s the only rationale many of them can come up with for why it continues to deport them under Title 42. “The best word I can use to describe it is ‘political expediency,’ Waldman says. “I don’t know. I don’t know what the point is, to tell you the truth.”
Waldman and Heisler were two of the dozens of doctors who signed a letter sent to the Centers of Disease Control last month expressing “grave” concern over Title 42, which the Biden administration has been using, if not abusing, to circumvent humanitarian asylum laws since the president took office. In January alone, over 62,000 migrants were expelled under Title 42, according to Customs and Border Protection. The number was north of 73,000 in February, when the ACLU issued its first legal challenge to the order under Biden. “Throughout his presidency, Trump dismantled legal protections for people seeking safety in our country — and under the guise of public health, he caused more suffering for asylum-seekers,” Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said at the time. “Our fight for these families continues, until and unless the Biden administration ends this cruel practice once and for all.”
The ACLU continued to fight the order in court and the Biden administration continued to defend it as necessary to combat the spread of Covid-19. Last Thursday, however, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the administration from expelling families under Title 42. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the order while speaking in Del Rio on Monday — claiming it is meant to “protect the American public, to protect the communities along the border, and to protect the migrants themselves” — and the Biden administration is appealing Judge Sullivan’s ruling.
“Previously the administration had said that they would stop applying Title 42 to certain families with young children,” Jennifer Ibanez Whitlock, a policy counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says of the administration reneging on its plans to start phase out Title 42. “But that was never anything that a court had ordered them to do. Now they actually have a court order and they’re appealing it.”
“The fact that the administration has decided to appeal that ruling and double down on this Trump-era policy is really just such a travesty, and a betrayal of the campaign promises that were made about a different type of immigration enforcement,” adds Kathryn Hampton, coordinator of the Asylum Network Program at Physicians for Human Rights.
In striking down the administration’s ability to expel families under Title 42, Judge Sullivan allowed the Biden administration a 14-day stay to prepare for the ruling to take effect. The administration has responded by ramping up its expulsion of Haitians seeking asylum at the Souther Border, sending them back to the earthquake-ravaged island nation whose president was assassinated this summer. “They’re cynically using the 14-day stay to expel as many Haitians as possible,” Hamptons says. “It’s just so calculated.”
Physicians for Human Rights is one of several organizations that have been pleading to consult with Biden’s CDC over the order, which Vice President Mike Pence reportedly forced the agency to implement last year despite the protestations of its scientists. “I spent most of my professional career at the CDC, so I know a little bit about what goes on down there,” says Waldman. “I guess we all kind of naturally assumed that the Biden administration would reverse the decision.”
This has not been the case, and public health groups have said that their appeals to the agency have largely gone unanswered. “It’s a black box for us,” Hampton says. “They really need to be accountable to the public health community. So far we don’t we don’t have any indications that the CDC is listening.” (The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone. Neither did the Department of Homeland Security.)
The Biden administration’s decision to supercharge the expulsion of mostly Haitian migrants at the border had for advocates signified a profound betrayal of his campaign promises to take a humane approach to the immigration. This betrayal was rendered visually on Monday with the release of photos appearing to depict whip-wielding border agents on horseback rounding up migrants.
“The Biden administration is missing the mark tremendously on how they are responding to immigration,” says Cynthia Garcia of the immigrant advocacy group United We Dream, referencing the images released on Monday. “They can’t say they are for welcoming people with dignity and are pro-immigrant while simultaneously denying the right to asylum to the thousands of people that are coming to the border. The violence that people are experiencing right now is the direct impact of what the administration has been doing around Title 42 and the expansion of the deportation force.”
Border patrol is mounted on horseback rounding up Haitian refugees with whips.
This is unfathomable cruelty towards people fleeing disaster and political ruin. The administration must stop this. pic.twitter.com/BSjT91NSj0
— Sawyer Hackett (@SawyerHackett) September 20, 2021
“It makes this White House administration look worse than Trump,” says Patrice Lawrence of UndocuBlack, an an advocacy group for undocumented Black immigrants. “It’s one thing if the person explicitly said to you or ran on a platform to be evil, and then it’s another when they ran on a platform that talked about equity and justice and what they are doing is clearly not equity and justice.“
The fact that the Biden administration has felt the need to cling to a Trump-era provision rooted in racism in order to manage the border does not bode well for a future that promises and even greater influx of refugees as the climate crisis worsens. “There’s no plan for for for having a coherent humanitarian response,” Heisler says. “This is urgent now, and it’s going to be especially urgent with climate change, which is going to lead to more massive migrations and climate refugees. We’re absolutely not prepared for that. It’s another area where we’re just having ad hoc, cruel, inhumane responses to deal with a systemic problem.”
The climate crisis and the pandemic mean it’s also never been more important to build policy on science rather than political expediency. Paying lip service to the former isn’t enough, and though Biden has rolled back some of the Trump administration’s most insidious immigration policies, as Lawrence from UndocuBlack noted, in many ways, it’s worse. “It’s clear that they’re deporting Haitians for political not humanitarian reasons,” she adds. “Because what they’re doing is just not adding up. It’s just not adding up.”