Disorderly and Inhumane: Biden Administration Continues to Expel Asylum Seekers to Danger While U.S. Border Communities Stand Ready to Welcome
In late June 2021, during a visit to El Paso, Vice President Kamala Harris affirmed that the Biden administration is “committed to ensuring that our immigration system is orderly and humane.” But the Biden administration’s continued use of President Trump’s policy of blocking people seeking asylum at U.S. ports of entry and expelling those who cross the border is neither orderly nor humane. This report focuses on the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region where the expulsion policy continues to block asylum seekers from Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela and other countries from access to the U.S. asylum system. Our findings confirm that expelled families and adults are immediately targeted for kidnapping and violence, lateral expulsions to Ciudad Juárez from other sectors of the border continue to endanger expelled asylum seekers, and restrictions on asylum at U.S. ports of entry block people fleeing persecution and other violence in Mexico from protection. The expulsion policy is spurring disorder, confusion and trauma, and is pushing migrants and asylum seekers to undertake dangerous – and repeated – journeys to cross the border in an effort to reach safety.
While senior administration officials continue to insist that the use of Title 42 public health law to carry out these expulsions is a “public health imperative,” senior experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention objected to the policy at its inception, and public health experts have repeatedly warned that the use of public health authority to target people seeking asylum at the border “lacked public health justification” and “would not protect public health.” Yet, even as the United States gets “closer than ever to declaring  independence from” COVID-19, as President Biden observed in early July 2021, the Biden administration is reportedly considering plans to continue to use the unlawful Title 42 expulsion policy to block and expel single adult asylum seekers for months longer, while potentially exempting families from the policy in late July. This plan would prolong disparities in access to protection and disproportionately impact Black, LGBTQ, and other asylum seekers.
A recently created process that exempts a limited number of individuals on a case-by-case basis from Title 42 expulsions and permits them to request U.S. protection does not comply with U.S. asylum law or treaty obligations. Indeed, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said that “[a] system which allows a small number of asylum seekers to be admitted daily . . . is not an adequate response.” The exemption process has not been publicly advertised or explained to asylum seekers, and those who are not aware of the exemption process or who lack connections to the civil society groups carrying out exemption screening are likely to be shut out. This is particularly true for Black, Indigenous and other asylum seekers who do not speak Spanish. By using legal services and humanitarian organizations as gatekeepers for U.S. asylum protection at the southern border, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) exemption process makes these groups targets for smugglers and other organized criminal groups that prey on migrants.
At the same time, DHS has significant resources at its disposal to receive and register asylum seekers and release them to communities along the border and across the country that are standing by with unused shelter space and underutilized volunteer networks. They are ready to receive and welcome the families, adults and children seeking protection at the southern U.S. border into a dignified and safe environment. This report highlights the devastating impact of the Biden administration’s decision to continue using Title 42 to block and expel asylum-seeking families and adults to Ciudad Juárez, even as faith-led organizations, humanitarian groups, legal services organizations, and other volunteers stand ready in the El Paso region to welcome these asylum seekers and help them reach their destinations in the United States.
This report is based on more than 70 in-person interviews with asylum-seeking families and adults in Ciudad Juárez conducted in late June 2021 by Human Rights First, as well as interviews with Mexican local, state and federal government officials, shelter and humanitarian service providers in the United States and Mexico, and the County of El Paso’s Office of New Americans. Human Rights First researchers also toured an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hotel detention facility for families in El Paso. The report draws on the ongoing work of the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute, as co-convener of the Frontera Welcome Coalition of local government agencies, legal services providers, faith-based groups, healthcare workers, and immigrants rights advocates, to ensure shelter and other assistance are available to asylum seekers in the region.