After months and years of waiting, a few asylum applicants finally began moving toward safety on February 19. Slowly. Painfully.
Although U.S. and U.N. officials stumbled through new procedures, the Biden administration’s commitment is clear. The United States will reverse the multiple illegal bars to asylum set in place by the Trump administration from 2017 to January 19, 2021.
The Trump administration’s restrictions took the country back to the disgraceful days of the 1930s and 1940s, when the United States turned away Jews seeking protection from Hitler and the Nazis. Hundreds of those forced to return to Europe were later killed by the Nazis. In the decades following World War II and the Holocaust, the United States signed international agreements, pledging that we would never again return refugees and asylum seekers to face torture and death.
One of the most pernicious of the Trump-era barriers was the “Remain in Mexico” order. In the Orwellian tradition of 1984, the Trump administration called this the “Migrant Protection Protocol.” The order said that anyone seeking asylum in the United States was required to remain in Mexico until their hearing date. Then they had to return to Mexico and remain there until the next hearing date, and the next, and the next.
Tens of thousands of asylum seekers waited in Mexico, living on the streets or in squalid camps. They were easy targets for criminals, suffering rape, robbery, kidnapping, torture, and ransom demands made to relatives in the United States.
If they could not make it back to the United States for their court date, their pleas for asylum were summarily rejected. Living in Mexico, often with no fixed address, most had no access to legal assistance. If they could not present a convincing legal case, their cases were rejected. Even if they did make a case, their plea might be rejected—or a full hearing might be set for a date months or years in the future.
President Joe Biden promised to end the Remain in Mexico program. He promised to admit those asylum seekers now living under that program to the United States to await their court dates. The process of admission began, slowly and bureaucratically, on February 19.
Rio Grande Valley News reported on the roll-out, which started with an online application process set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That effort immediately encountered problems with internet access, weak internet reception, and an overwhelming number of people trying to access the application site. Others, like Vilma, had problems that even a smoothly working website could not have helped.
“’I don’t understand it,’ Vilma, an El Salvadoran woman in her 50s, said as she broke down in tears. Vilma sought help to register after she explained she considers herself illiterate.
‘Although help was provided, one of the critical steps of the process required an email address.
“’Input an email account you check frequently, because this is how you’ll receive information relevant to your process,’ the website read. An asterisk by the question made progress into the second page of the four-page registration impossible to attain.
“’God’s going to help me,’ Vilma said, hopeful. She lives alone in Matamoros and has no one who could give her constant updates of an email address.”
As they waited, many struggled to survive below-freezing temperatures, like those in a Matamoros camp.
““Everything froze – the water we cook with, even clothes became stiff with ice,” Manuel recalled from the previous night, when sleet pummeled the plastic tarps slung over camping tents as extra protection from the elements.
“Elsewhere along the border with Texas, a group of migrants in Piedras Negras risked the subzero currents of the Rio Grande as they tried to cross the river into the United States.
“A Venezuelan woman died in the attempt while three companions survived but suffered hypothermia, Mexican authorities said on Wednesday.”
Some asylum seekers did make it in. Six families and five individuals—25 people in all—entered at San Ysidro on February 19.
A few others, deemed especially vulnerable, were admitted early. José and his four-year-old son were allowed in two days earlier. During their 20-month wait in Mexico, they had been kidnapped, with José beaten, threatened with death, and held until relatives in the United States paid a ransom for his release.
“’We just entered. Thank God, we made it,’ José said. ‘I don’t have words to express the joy that I feel now, to be able to join my family.’…
“José and his family fled Honduras when gangs demanded a “war tax” from the business they operated there, a carwash. José’s wife, Cindy, who had a visa, and their older son, who is a U.S. citizen, were able to travel to New Jersey, but José and Santiago, who had no visas, sought asylum at the border and were forced to remain in Mexico.”
Allowing in the asylum seekers who were sent under by the “Remain in Mexico” policy is just a beginning. We need to overhaul the entire asylum system, ensuring fair and prompt hearings for every asylum seeker who arrives at our border seeking safety.