Immigration advocates and human rights groups were appalled to learn Feb. 4 that the White House has decided to continue with Title 42, the Trump-era immigration policy that uses the COVID-19 pandemic as a rationale for immediately deporting asylum seekers and other migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Long past time this policy is ended,” Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, tweeted the day CBS News reported the decision. “Surge testing and vaccines to the area. Process cases. Just turning people around is artificially increasing apprehension numbers and putting people in greater danger.”
Biden has taken flak multiple times from multiple sources during his presidency for continuing the use of Title 42, a previously little-known pre-pandemic federal health code provision. But since 2020 it has been used to expel more than 1.2 million migrants, according to the American Immigration Council.
Physicians and medical researchers have disputed the government’s claims that the provision prevents the spread of the coronavirus.
“Two years into this pandemic, it is clear that the Title 42 order is nothing more than a politically expedient measure that exploits the COVID-19 pandemic to expel or block from the country people seeking asylum,” public health experts said in a Jan. 28, 2022 letter sent from Columbia University School of Public Health to leaders of the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security.
About two weeks earlier, a group of epidemiologists and other health experts joined the chorus of voices warning against the dire consequences facing migrants deported under the provision, including abject poverty, severe hunger and the realities of extortion, kidnapping and murder by drug cartels and other criminal elements.
“Initially pronounced by the Trump administration in March 2020, the order has been repeatedly extended since then, exacting a terrible toll on the lives and well-being of asylum seekers who have been deprived of their right under domestic and international law to seek protection, and returned to face violence and death,” the scholars said in a statement issued by the university’s public health program.
But the White House, citing scientific data and support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, has steadfastly defended its use of Title 42 as a way of protecting the U.S. population during the pandemic.
“Sharon Swingle, a Justice Department lawyer representing the administration during a nearly two-hour hearing before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, said the migrant expulsion policy, known as Title 42, is rooted in ‘scientific expertise.’ She warned that its sudden termination could increase coronavirus transmission inside Border Patrol facilities and pose a ‘serious danger to public health,” CBS News reported last month.
“‘The government’s goal is to get back to a state of orderly immigration processing for everyone, but currently, in CDC’s view, the public health realities don’t permit that,’ said Swingle, who also cited the recent rapid spread of the Omicron variant.”
The CDC, which initially opposed the application of Title 42 when implemented by the Trump administration, issued an order in August 2021 declaring its continued use “remains necessary to protect U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, lawful permanent residents, personnel and noncitizens at the ports of entry and U.S. Border Patrol stations, and destination communities in the United States during the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
The order declared that Title 42 should be reassessed every 60 days but should remain in effect until federal authorities, including the CDC, declare the coronavirus no longer to be a threat. It was the third such assessment that preceded the Biden administration’s most recent decision to stay with the measure, CBS News reported.
And White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters as recently as Feb. 1 that the president is standing by those public health guidelines: “The CDC is obviously the determinant of having Title 42 in place, and that is still in place because of the pandemic that we’re in.”
The contrary consensus outside the federal government doesn’t disputes those conclusions, the American Immigration Council said. “Public reporting indicates that when Title 42 was originally created, CDC scientists expressed opposition to this invocation of Title 42, arguing that there was no public health rationale to support it. Ever since then, public health experts outside the CDC have continued to agree, arguing that while international borders remain largely open to other travelers, there is no need to turn away refugees and expel them to their home countries or Mexico.”
Worse still to many is the administration’s recent widening of the use of Title 42 to deport migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela flown to third-party nations, such as Columbia, in addition to those typically turned back overland to Mexico.
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, took Biden to task over the development.
“Ultimately, the use of Title 42 deprives legitimate asylum seekers of their legal right to seek asylum and pursue their claims in the U.S., and its extended use has created unsafe conditions for vulnerable migrants, increased the number of dangerous border crossings, and has prevented the Biden administration from fulfilling its early commitment to restore access to asylum,” Menendez said in a recent statement.
He was especially critical of the deportation of Venezuelan asylum seekers.
“By continuing to use a page from Trump’s immigration enforcement playbook, this administration is turning its back on the immigrants who need our protection the most. Under (President Nicolás) Maduro’s cruel regime, Venezuelans who are sent back face a grim future and, in many cases, harsh consequences for seeking political asylum in the United States.”