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Immigrant, Refugee, & Asylum Seeker Rights: Good First Steps, Long Road Ahead

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Authors: Daniella Burgi-Palomino, Lauri Alvarez

This article was first published in the Spring 2021 issue of The Advocate.


President Biden made commitments during his campaign to undo the harms caused by the Trump Administration to our immigrant communities, asylum seekers, and refugees. This was important because the former administration’s anti-immigrant and racist policies separated children from their parents, sent migrants back to danger, and targeted families with raids. Since President Biden took office in January, we have seen some initial steps to fulfill those commitments, but there is still a lot of work to be done. We must continue to pressure the administration to create a truly compassionate and humane immigration system that goes beyond just undoing the harm caused by the Trump Administration to really advance longer-term protection for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.

First Steps towards Undoing Trump Administration Anti-Asylum Policies

One of the first announcements President Biden made towards revoking the Trump Administration’s anti-asylum policies was phasing out the Remain in Mexico/MPP policy started in 2019 that kept asylum seekers waiting in dangerous parts of Mexico in makeshift tents for months or even years throughout the time of their U.S. immigration proceedings. We welcomed this news in light of all of the actions we have taken together to speak out against this policy. On February 11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began processing a first group of asylum seekers at ports of entry along the southern border. So far, over 11,000 asylum seekers have been processed and can pursue their asylum claims safely with their families on U.S. soil. We welcomed the administration’s recent announcement to fully terminate the Remain in Mexico policy and urge it to ensure that all those formerly under it can have a renewed chance to make their asylum claim

Though the Remain in Mexico policy has ended, unfortunately, the vast majority of migrants and asylum seekers arriving at our border are still being expelled to Mexico or their home countries under the CDC Border Order called Title 42 that the Trump Administration implemented in March 2020 with the excuse of the pandemic. Disappointingly, the Biden Administration has left the Title 42 policy in place over a year later. Title 42 does not give asylum seekers a fair chance to apply for asylum and instead immediately returns them to Mexico or puts them on planes back to their home countries, including countries like Haiti that are experiencing political instability. In the past year alone, over 420,000 migrants have been expelled under Title 42. Asylum seekers expelled to Mexico have experienced rape, kidnapping, torture, and other serious human rights violations

We have spoken out with you in an open petition to President Biden to rescind Title 42 and have also raised our voices to members of Congress who have written a letter to President Biden urging him to end expulsions and deportations. But we must continue speaking out about the harms caused to asylum seekers under this policy and call for safe, orderly, and humane processing at our border while urging President Biden to live up to his promise to fully restore access to asylum at our border by rescinding this policy.

Within his first days in office, President Biden also issued a 100-day deportation moratorium halting all deportations from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. Unfortunately, a Texas judge blocked this order, allowing for deportations to continue until a new court decision is made. This means that we are continuing to endanger the lives of those detained by returning them to their home countries during a pandemic and without proper testing. We will continue to call on the administration to halt these death flights immediately. 

Humanitarian Protection, Militarization South of U.S.-Mexico Border

It’s important that the Biden Administration uphold its international obligations to protect those fleeing persecution not only at our border but also south of it throughout Mexico and the northern countries of Central America. As a part of one of President Biden’s executive orders on addressing the root causes of migration from Central America, the administration announced that it would restart the Central America Minors (CAM) program, terminated under the Trump Administration. Though it was small, the CAM program did provide some children in situations of danger a chance to seek protection from their home country. We will be urging the administration to make sure that the program is restarted with improvements like expanding the eligibility criteria to include children with parents without lawful status in the United States and making sure cases are fast-tracked. We will also work with our civil society partners in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to inform them about changes in U.S. policies so that they can better serve and inform migrant families and children.

While the CAM program can provide some children in situations of danger the ability to be reunited with their families in the United States, we know that it will not be able to help everyone. It’s important that any effort to expand access to protection south of our border is a complementary and not alternative strategy to fully restore access to asylum at our border. Together with our partners, we have written letters encouraging the Biden Administration to expand humanitarian protections in the region instead of partnering with governments in the region to forcibly deter migration. And on a global scale, we need to make sure that the Biden Administration lives up to its promise to substantially increase refugee admissions.

Urgent Protections for TPS & DACA Beneficiaries

We welcome the Biden administration’s recent announcement to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for some 100,000 Haitians for 18 months, even though we know this is not a permanent solution. President Biden did issue executive orders at the start of his presidency committing to protect the Dreamers and introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would grant a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, TPS beneficiaries, and farmworkers. But ultimately it will be up to our Congress to pass permanent protections. And so far, with your help, the 117th House passed the American Dream and Promise Act (H.R.6), which would offer a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and TPSianos with bipartisan support. It’s up to the Senate to pass protections now but it’s urgent they do so immediately because TPS protections are set to expire for Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians on October 4, 2021—which is just four months away. We’ll be working hard with you to make sure that the Senate moves quickly to advance Senator Van Hollen’s SECURE Act (S. 306) which would grant TPS beneficiaries a pathway to citizenship and recognize these members of our communities for the permanent members that they are.

At the same time, the Biden Administration must now act to redesignate TPS for El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua and to designate TPS for Guatemala based on the impact of the back-to-back hurricanes last year. Issuing TPS for these countries would allow citizens of these countries in the United States to live without fear and to be able to support their family members in situations of need in their home countries. With you, we’ve raised our voices to members of Congress who have written to President Biden with this request but will continue urging the administration to issue TPS for Central American countries immediately, and also to educate senators about the urgency of passing longer-term permanent protections.
We are thankful that President Biden has moved ahead and started the undoing of some of the Trump Administration’s anti-asylum policies—but much remains to be done for all those arriving at our border fleeing persecution and also for the members of our immigrant communities who deserve a pathway to citizenship. The time is now.We can’t keep sending people back to the very dangers they fled. We can’t let Dreamers and others lose their protections to live without fear in the United States, the only home they’ve ever known. That’s why, with you, we’ll continue encouraging the Biden Administration to go further and advance protections for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.