Our real national crisis is not at the border, but in Washington, and in the conscience of our country. Right now, despite our promises and laws, the U.S. government continues to refuse safe haven to asylum seekers asking for protection. That is a violation of U.S. laws, international human rights covenants, and morality itself.
Migrants head for the United States because of desperation. Two hurricanes, civil wars, starvation, unchecked gang violence, police and political violence: these are all factors driving people from their homes and communities in fear for their lives and the lives of their children.
Under U.S. law, someone who is inside the United States, regardless of how they arrived, can apply for the legal protection of asylum. An asylum seeker can also apply at a port of entry—that is, at one of the gates at the border, or when arriving by air or sea. An asylum seeker may not apply from inside their home country. They have to get to the border or inside the United States to apply.
Right now, the U.S. government is violating this law. Asylum seekers are not allowed to apply at the border. If they enter the United States, they are still not allowed to apply. Instead, they are immediately expelled—either to Mexico or back to the country they are fleeing. The only exception the Biden administration makes is for unaccompanied minors.
I’ll say it again, just be absolutely clear: expelling asylum seekers or refusing to allow them to apply at the border violates U.S. law. U.S. law requires that they be allowed to apply, and that they be allowed to present evidence to U.S. officials and ultimately to U.S. immigration courts. No one gets asylum easily, but the law says they must be allowed to apply.
The Trump administration used various pretexts to refuse asylum seekers the right to apply. The most recent is called Title 42, the so-called public health bar pretending it has something to do with COVID protection. I say “so-called” because our own public health officials resisted this declaration.
“By mid-March, CDC’s scientists still refused to comply. That’s when Pence and Wolf called with the message to get it done and quickly….
“’They forced us,’ said a former health official involved in the process. ‘It is either do it or get fired.’”
There’s no doubt that turning back asylum seekers endangers lives.
“Anthony So, an international expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote in a letter to Redfield in April that ‘the decision to halt asylum processes ‘to protect the public health’ is not based on evidence or science,’ and said ‘this order directly endangers tens of thousands of lives and threatens to amplify dangerous anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia.’”
The Trump administration turned away everyone, including children, until a November court order said they could not return children. The number of children crossing the border began to increase in November, but the Trump administration refused to open more shelters, despite pleas by the Biden transition team.
A January court order reversed the November order, allowing the Biden administration to expel children, if they chose to do so. They chose instead—and rightly—to protect children, instead of expelling them. That means they need much more humane shelter space and many more personnel to find relatives and release children to them. They are working on it, though I agree with those who think they should have done more, sooner, and more efficiently calling on private agencies for help.
In the meantime, the sight of children at the border gave Republicans the chance to scream about border crossings and claim a phony crisis. The mainstream media obligingly gave them a platform, and have only now, after more than a month, begun to back away.
“The descriptions are not just factually inaccurate and divorced from important context but also closely linked to images of war and natural disasters. Individuals fleeing violence and poverty have been reduced to an amorphous threat. Such dehumanization is dangerous and serves only to sensationalize the moment ….
“[John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards at the AP] told me that AP editors had been discussing word choices internally and he shared with me an internal memo on Wednesday with guidance about immigration coverage. ‘Because migration is such a hot-button issue, we also should try to avoid imagery conjuring war or natural disaster, which could portray migrants as a negative, harmful influence,’ the memo says. ‘Avoid emotive words like onslaught, tidal wave, flood, inundation, surge, invasion, army, march, sneak and stealth.'”
Right now, the Biden administration has barely begun to reverse the years of damage done by the previous administration. Although they are protecting children, they still insist that they are turning away or expelling every adult who approaches the border, still in violation of U.S asylum laws. In fact, they are admitting some family units and turning away others. That results in a humane decision for some, disaster for others, and confusion all around.
We have the capacity to accept and process asylum seekers at our border, already-approved refugees waiting for admission, farm workers needed to plant and process food, and family members separated for years by Trump’s harsh edicts. The United States has the resources, public and private, to do all this and more. As Alexandra Yellin writes at Human Rights First:
“There is room in the policy conversation for a discussion of how we can bring refugees safely into the United States. But there is no room to discuss whether they should be allowed entry at all. America has not only legal and treaty obligations, but a moral obligation, to protect refugees fleeing unimaginable violence.”
Our crisis is not on the border, but within the U.S. government, which includes not only the Biden administration but the recalcitrant Republican Senators and Representatives in Congress, and a judicial branch now riddled with Trump appointees. Our crisis is not one of capacity but of conscience.