May 11, 2023

Trump-era immigration policy ends with pandemic, advocates concerned for asylum seekers

A US Border Patrol agent patrols the US/Mexico border

The public health order that has prevented asylum seekers from crossing the border through ports of entry ends at midnight Thursday.

The public health order, called Title 42, ends at midnight ET on May 11. President Donald Trump invoked it at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, claiming it would help stop the spread of the respiratory disease but many critics have called it a racist ploy to stop immigration along the southern border.

President Joe Biden tried to end Title 42 after he took office but legal challenges by Republicans led to the courts overturning Biden’s plans. The policy ends on Thursday because the U.S. Health and Human Services is allowing the federal public health emergency for COVID-19 to end on Thursday as well.

Biden promised more humane border policies while on the campaign trail, but groups who work with asylum seekers told NM Political Report that the U.S. border policies are inhumane regardless of which administration is in the White House. Much of U.S. border policies separate migrant families, advocates have said.

“There are so many facets of these issues. What we saw under Trump with family separation,  there was such a moment of collective rallying around this that this was unacceptable. But the reality is versions of that happen and continue to happen out of sight. People don’t want to admit it’s happening. People going through this are often detained, they don’t speak the language. They don’t have access to tell their stories,” Tess Hellgren, deputy legal director of Innovation Law Lab, said.

Even as Title 42 is ending, Biden has proposed a new regulation that would prevent the majority of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. from ever reaching U.S. soil. Yo seek asylum, a migrant must first arrive within the border to ask for asylum. But Biden’s new rule, proposed this week, would require migrants traveling through other countries to first request asylum in the countries they cross before coming to the U.S.

Trump introduced a similar policy under his administration but a legal challenge ended it. According to Pew Research Center, while Border Patrol encounters with Mexicans represent the single largest encounter for a specific demographic, the largest number of border encounters took place with refugees from non-Mexican countries in Fiscal Year 2021.

The largest number came from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Hellgren called the new ban a “really distressing development.”

“It’s not only contrary to the law and spirit of U.S. protections, but it also legitimizes these policies that received a public outcry under Trump,” Hellgren said.

Hellgren said that because an individual has to show a passport and visa to board an airline to make an international flight, asylum seekers fleeing their home country due to fear of persecution or violence often have no option but to travel over land. 

Media outlets are reporting large numbers of migrants, many of whom will seek asylum once they cross onto U.S. soil, along the southern border. Republicans and Democrats, alike, have criticized Biden’s border policies. Biden has criticized Republicans in Congress for blocking efforts to implement better policies. Biden said during a recent news conference “it will be chaotic for a while.” 

Biden also outlined plans, including setting up centers in Columbia and other countries where migrants can seek asylum without having to travel by land across Mexico and other countries to put foot on U.S. land to make the request.

But Hellgren said the U.S. processed Ukrainian asylum seekers swiftly after Russia’s invasion last year because “there was a political will to do so.”

“I’m afraid of what will happen based on what I’ve seen,” Hellgren said. “With the lifting of Title 42, there will be a politicized narrative, lives dehumanized and no access to lawful procedures.”

Updated to reflect that international flights also often require a visa, and to clarify that migrants come to the border and request asylum, not a credible fear interview.