September 16, 2021

Officials urge DHS to end program that puts asylum seekers at greater risk

dawn paley

The U.S.-Mexico border wall, from the Mexican side,. (Flickr/cc

Several elected New Mexico officials signed onto a letter sent by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asking for the end of border expulsions under Title 42.

Title 42 is a program started under former President Donald Trump which has continued under President Joe Biden. Under Title 42, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expels asylum seekers at the border rather than allowing them to enter the country and go through the process of applying for asylum in the U.S.

Under Biden, some exemptions became available though CBP still turned away the majority who requested asylum at a port of entry. But Katie Hoeppner, a spokesperson for ACLU-New Mexico, told NM Politlcal Report in an email that the situation “is now deeply troubling because there is no way for people seeking asylum to safely approach ports of entry and request protection, no matter how vulnerable they are.”

The letter states that allowing asylum seekers to enter into the U.S. is not only a legal responsibility but that it can be done safely. The letter states that recent research shows that 99 percent of asylum seekers who were not detained or released from immigration custody showed up for their hearings in 2019. The letter calls the expulsion of asylum seekers from ports of entry as “discriminatory” and “unlawful.” Asylum seekers have the right to seek asylum in the U.S. under the Refugee Act.

Four state senators, seven House representatives, two Las Cruces city councilors, the Alamogordo Mayor Pro Tem and the heads of organizations that work with asylum seekers in New Mexico signed the letter.

Many thought Biden would end Title 42 by the end of July. Hoepner said in her email that when that didn’t happen, nonprofits helping to process people through the exemptions of Title 42 felt they could no longer be a part of the “harm reduction” approach.

“They were unwilling to be co-opted or complicit in this unlawful policy,” she said.

Conservatives including U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a Republican representing New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District along the border, have argued that Title 42 needs to be kept in effect during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said in a letter to Mayorkas in June, that if Title 42 is lifted, the spread of COVID-19 would increase due to migrants crossing outside of ports of entry.

But both the Trump and Biden administrations put very few restrictions on international travel. Rev. George Miller, who runs a refugee center at El Calvario United Methodist Church in Las Cruces, previously told NM Political Report that hundreds of beds could be available for asylum seekers across New Mexico. Miller was one of the co-signatures on the letter to Mayorkas Tuesday.

Related: With shelter beds available in New Mexico, asylum seekers wait across the border in dangerous conditions because of a Trump-imposed policy

Other advocates have said the federal government and non-government organizations (NGO’s) have the capacity to test and vaccinate against COVID-19 when people cross ports of entry along the southern border. Miller told NM Political Report that most asylum seekers would only pass through New Mexico for a day or two while they make arrangements to stay with family or friends in other parts of the U.S.

Forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for an indefinite length of time to seek asylum in the U.S. further marginalizes already marginalized people, especially LGBTQ asylum seekers, the letter states.

“Overcrowded and unsanitary camps increase the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks among people living there, potentially contributing to the further spread of variants. These poor conditions, in conjunction with extremely limited access to adequate healthcare services, and the threat of serious crime by violent gangs, puts already vulnerable people in the worst of circumstances during a global pandemic,” the letter states.

One of the signatories, state Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, said through the news release that both parties “have politicized the immigration system for political gain.”

“Title 42 is a continuation of that, leaving thousands of refugees in peril. As a first-generation New Mexican, and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Title 42 goes against everything I believe in. I urge President Biden to not perpetuate the political exploitation of our immigration system and instead work towards designing a system that is holistic, just, and fair,” she said.

State Sen. Carrie Hambeln, D-Las Cruces, who also signed the letter called ending Title 42 “long past due,” in the news release.

“The people arriving at our Southern border to seek asylum are fleeing unimaginable circumstances. It’s unconscionable that our government continues to put them in harm’s way when we have the resources and the ability to respond with humanity and care. I am honored to stand with the ACLU, my colleagues, and community in calling on Secretary Mayorkas to rescind this harmful policy.”

The Department for Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment but did say that DHS responds to correspondence through official channels.